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NL Almanac

The Dutch Sinterklaas festival

The mysteries of the Dutch Sinterklaas festival unravelled

SinterklaasPepernoten

Sinterklaas, as the legend goes, arrives in Holland by steamer from his home in Spain a couple of weeks before his birthday

‘Sinterklaas’ refers to the feast of Saint Nicholas which is celebrated in Holland on 5 December, the eve of the Saint’s birthday.

Although they both share the same origins, Sinterklaas has been around much longer than Santa Claus and some say that Santa Claus was originally created by Dutch emigrants to the USA. The legends which have evolved around these two characters share many, though not all, elements.

The rituals

Sinterklaas, as the legend goes, arrives in Holland by steamer from his home in Spain a couple of weeks before his birthday. Actors dressed as the Saint and his black-faced helpers – ‘Zwarte Pieten’ – enter each town in large, bombastic processions. The Saint rides a white horse and his helpers poke fun at bystanders and throw small ginger biscuits – ‘pepernoten’ – around them.

On 5 December, also known as ‘Pakjesavond’ in Holland, the Saint rides his horse over the roofs of the houses while his assistants shin down the chimneys to get the carrots and hay left for the Saint’s horse by the children of the house. Traditionally, presents were left for good children and deportation back to Spain in an old sack threatened for those who misbehaved. Nowadays, however, thing are more relaxed and all the children get their presents the next morning. During the period leading up to Sinterklaas, they also find small presents and goodies in shoes they have left out near the chimney for the Saint to fill. Adults too indulge wholeheartedly in the festival, exchanging surprise gifts and writing humorous poems about each other. In recent years, Sinterklaas has become the day for giving toddlers and younger children their main presents, whilst the older children and teenagers get theirs at Christmas.

Origins

The real Saint Nicholas was a fourth century bishop from Asia Minor with a name for helping the needy. He is also the Catholic patron saint of children and unmarried young women. In mediaeval times, his story was used to instruct Dutch children of the punishments for misbehaviour and his birthday was celebrated rather riotously, by all accounts. The modern Sinterklaas was re-invented in the nineteenth century by city elders who introduced a more sanitised celebration with emphasis on celebrations at home with the family.

The controversy

Perhaps the only perceived negative aspect of the festivities nowadays is the black face make-up worn by the Zwarte Pieten. Some say this comes from the rowdy mediaeval youths’ habit of blacking up their faces so as not to be recognisable when begging money at the doors. Others say it reflects the soot the helpers pick up from the chimneys they go down. Or again, it may represent the feared Moors of old Spain, enough to frighten any mediaeval, Dutch child into being good (Spain brutally occupied the Netherlands in the seventeenth century).

Whatever the truth, in these politically correct times it is a strange sight to see men and women with blacked-up faces wearing Moorish, mediaeval clothes accompanying the Saint in a procession down the streets. Some people feel the blacking-up should stop as it represents an unacceptable racial stereotype. The picture of naughty, black servants carrying out the wishes of a good, white master is also distasteful to some. Most Dutch people see it as an innocent old custom but this argument seems weaker each year as racial tensions and faltering ‘tolerance’ eat away at the base of the Dutch multicultural dream.

Whether critics succeed in getting rid of the blacking-up or not, it does not look like Sinterklaas and his helpers are going anywhere soon — except back to Spain till next year! Meanwhile, the Dutch will just have to put up with having two Christmas celebrations each year.