Today is one of most exciting days of the year for children in The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, Germany, Austria, Poland and Czech Republic. Tonight children will get gifts, many gifts from the good holy man, Sinterklaas. People in the countries mentioned before celebrate on 5 December Sinterklaas’ birthday. Some parts of Belgium celebrate this on 6 December. This tradition was originally a children’s feast. Since I live in The Netherlands I will share my thoughts about Dutch Sinterklaas tradition.
A good holy man
Sinterklaas (Dutch and Flemish spelling) or Sint (Saint) Nicolaas came from Myra (now a little town called Demre in Turkey). He was born in Patara, Lycia (now Turkey). He became bishop of Myra and passed away there at 6 December 342. Two centuries after his death the worship of this bishop started. He officially became a holy man (Saint) and has been seen as the protector of children, tradesmen and sailors ever since.
Be good and get rewarded
This tradition starts in the third week of November. Sinterklaas comes to The Netherlands by a steam boat, accompanied by his helpers, the pieten. From then until 5 December Dutch kids will behave well in order to get gifts from Sinterklaas. Dutch kids believe Sinterklaas puts the names of all children in his book. The good ones will be rewarded with gifts and the naughty ones will be taken by Sinterklaas helpers, the zwarte piet (black peter), in a burlap sack. So you can imagine the tension they experience welcoming 5 December. Some get serious stomach ache, some sleep badly. It is intensified by TV programmes about the adventures of Sinterklaas and co. When my daughter was young and still believed Sinterklaas existed, we watched Sinterklaasjournaal daily.
As soon as Sinterklaas is in the country children start to set their shoes in the hallway with a fruit/veggie, mostly a carrot or an apple. It is actually a gift for Sinterklaas’ horse. The morning after it disappears and a little gift will be found in the shoes. During this period of the year young children set a wish list of gifts they love to get from Sinterklaas. One thing they don’t know, the parents, uncles, aunts or grand parents buy the gifts, not Sinterklaas.
Wonderful evening (heerlijke avond) or evening of the gifts (pakjesavond) happens on the 5 December evening. Young children sing eagerly a number of songs welcoming Sinterklaas and his helpers. Meanwhile, the parents will go outside, knock on the door, deliver a burlap sack full of gifts and enter the house unseen. They then ask the children to open the door. I mention young children cause mostly older children, let’s say starting from 9 years old do not believe in Sinterklaas anymore. These older children still get their gifts allright. Families with older children change gifts during this wonderful evening. A couple of weeks before they will exchange lottery with a desired gift on it. One writes and read short poem to each other. The poem is about the gift’s receiver and about the gift itself. Seasonal culinary treats belong to this tradition such as pepernoten (ginger short bread tasted little balls), taai taai (anise taste candies), Chocolate letters (Chocolate in Initials), Speculaas (ginger biscuit in various vorms) and gourmet (homegrill). Black Peters scatter pepernoten when they are around.
Sinterklaas is not Santa
My first Sinterklaas celebration in The Netherlands confused me a lot cause in my homecountry Indonesia, an old colony of The Netherlands, I used to celebrate Sinterklaas on 5 December along with the custom of setting shoes and carrot in the hallway. The reason for my confusion was, Sinterklaas known in Indonesia is actually Santa Claus. And they are not the same men. To make it even worse, Santa Claus in Indonesia has Black Peters as helpers! Although it is believed that Sinterklaas should have been an inspiration of Santa Claus (Dutch migrants must have imported Sinterklaas to the new land the USA in the 19th century and combined with other pagan legends), there are many differences between them two. Sinterklaas is celebrated on 5/6 December, lives in Spain, rides horses, has black Petes as helpers etc, Santa Claus is active on Christmas eve, lives in the North Pole, rides a chariot pulled by reindeers. O, one more thing: We call Santa Claus Kerstman (Christman Man) in Dutch. On the contrary of Sinterklaas celebration, not many Dutchies give gifts on Christmas. Due to this tradition, one must not set a Christmas tree before Sinterklaas leaves the country. Shops in The Netherlands decorate their windows with Christmassy stuffs starting from 6 December. Before that it is all about Sinterklaas and his Black Peters.
Black Peters controversy
The merry zwarte pieten (Black Peters) help Sinterklaas loyally. For some children they are the boogey man. Some sayings in Dutch refer to Black Peters in a negative way. For the past years there have been critics about this folklore. Black Peters must have been slaves of Sinterklaas. Some cons of this remark fights this by stating Black Peters are black because they get in the house, delivering the gifts through the chimney. I remembered I once had a colleague from Canada. She was shocked to see Black Peters ridiculously frolicking around and being merry. Since then I started to look at Black Peters through her eyes. Sadly I must agree with her. On the other hand it is part of the (his)story. For more about this I found a comprehensive article about it here
This was my two-cent of one of the most exciting days of the year. I believe I have been good all this year, would I get something from Sinterklaas tonight? 🙂