First of all I would like to apologise if the large pictures cause you any trouble in reading my blog. I do not know how to compress them.
In the English-speaking world, christmas is the most important feast towards the end of the year. People exchange gifts, undertake all kinds of christmas activities and children believe heartily in the existence of Santa Claus...
In the Netherlands, christmas is celebrated too, but the focus is not so much on the exchange of gifts and the belief in Santa Claus, but has the more traditional Christian form. Dutch children hardly know Santa Claus. We have our own special figure who brings the gifts: Sinterklaas
, which is a derivative of the traditional Sint Nikolaas
(St. Nicholas). There's even an actor who (unrecognisably) appears as Sinterklaas on Dutch national television each year, wearing Bishop's clothes, a long white beard, a papal mitre on his head and a gold, curved staff, called a crosier. he rides a white horse called Amerigo.
St. Nicholas was a Greek Bishop in Myra, Turkey, where he gained the status of a saint posthumously for his charity work, especially to homeless children, in a time when this was not at all usual. After he died, his work was continued, and eventually introduced into Dutch culture. St. Nicholas' Eve is on the 5th of December, which is the date he was named a saint. It is also sometimes called pakjesavond
(literally: package evening, meaning gifts evening) because it is the chief gift-giving evening.
The Dutch already celebrated St. Nicholas when they started to emigrate to the USA centuries ago, and of course they brought their celebrating habits with them. The other emigrants liked the idea, but could not pronounce Sinterklaas
, so they approximated it to Santa Claus
The Feast Today
Somewhere in November, the nation celebrates the National Entrance of Sinterklaas, who arrives at some harbour somewhere in the Netherlands on a steamboat from Spain with a lot of helpers, so called Zwarte Pieten
, meaning Black Petes, who are full of mischief and black from soot from climbing up and down chimney pots from delivering the gifts. After Sinterklaas has disembarked, he is greeted with cheering and singing by thousands of children standing on the quays, after which he is paraded through the town, during which he visits schools, hospitals and shopping centres (for the event is heavily commercialised, sadly).
The Zwarte Pieten dole out all kinds of typical Sinterklaas-candy to the children, such as small gingerbread-biscuits/lumps called pepper nuts, and a large chocolate letter, preferably the initial letter of the child's name.
The event is broadcasted live on national Dutch television. In the following saturdays, all towns with a harbour celebrate their own seperate entrances of a local person serving as Sinterklaas, on various types of boats, and towns that do not have a harbour welcome Sinterklaas by train, horse, or sometimes even a carriage. The Dutch children are in a state of agitated expectation for the next weeks; what will they get from Sint?
There are some striking similarities between Sinterklaas and Santa Claus. Not just in their appearance, but also in the habits that accompany the events around their celebration.
1. Their appearance. Red clothing and a white beard. Good for children. Friendly.
2. Mischievous helpers
3. giving of gifts, through the chimney
4. Entrance from a remote location (Spain, the north pole)
5. Sitting on the lap of Sint/Santa to tell him what gifts you would like to receive.
Of course I could go on and on to mention all the similarities, but I will not for the sake of brevity (I hope I haven't surpassed that term already).
The interesting thing about the celebration of St. Nicholas is that it isn't just a Roman Catholic feast, although that's where it is originally from. Even many orthodox protestants, muslims and people from other religions in the Netherlands celebrate Sinterklaas, as it's emphasis has changed from the Saint to the children.
Here's Sinterklaas on Youtube entering in a Dutch TV show, which studio has been decorated for the event, including the presenter.
I'm aware that the Black Petes can be interpreted as african slaves, as they serve the white master, and this indeed has been done in the past. Many improvents to the status of the Black Petes have been made, most remarkably in 2006, when at the National Entrance of Sinterklaas, the Black Petes appeared in all kinds of colours in stead of black, stating that "on their way from Spain, they had gone through a rainbow." Another relativating argument, albeit a weak one, is that the white people of the Netherlands paint their own faces black, to become Black Petes. The Netherlands is a melting pot of cultures, and most Negroes in our society do not complain about the Black Petes, and some even play black petes themselves, as Sinterklaasfeest is a feast for all children. Not just the whites.