Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Sinterklaas, the real thing

Zie ginds komt de Stoomboot
Uit Spanje weer aan
Hij brengt ons Sint Nicolaas
Ik zie hem al staan
Hoe huppelt zijn paardje
Het dek op en neer
Hoe waaien de wimpels
al heen en al weer!
(traditional Sinterklaas arrival song)
December 5 is the one and only day in the year that I would rather be in "the old country" than in my beloved Kootenay mountain paradise. It is Sinterklaas avond, Saint Nicolas Eve.

The pictures on this post show the entry into Amsterdam, my hometown. 
Taken with permission from

The fun starts weeks ahead, with the official arrival of Sinterklaas by steamer from Spain, above.
The Saint is accompanied by his faithful Moorish servant, Zwarte Piet. (Black Peter) Zwarte Piet is sometimes alone, but sometimes, like at the official entry into the city, there are many.

Things are getting a bit complicated in these multicultural times. In 2007 I wrote: "I am glad to see that this most Dutch of all traditions is still going strong. Zwarte Piet is dressed in a sixteenth century style costume and is in outrageous blackface. Sorry folks, no offense is intended to anyone."

We used to joke that in these PC times the question was whether Zwarte Piet would be forced out, or on the contrary could only be played by people with the right natural colouring. That question is no longer a joke. Amsterdam has now officially banned blackface Piet and replaced him with "sooty piet". 

My reaction when the discussion first started was resistance, but now I think the time has come.

Many years ago we used to wait for hours for the entry parade, just like this. Dad took oldest brother Jaap and myself, the twins stayed home with Mom. I used to feel so sorry for her! It never occurred to me that waiting in a crowd in the late November chill might not be the ultimate pleasure.

In case anyone wonders why a bishop who hails originally 
from Myra in what is now Turkey arrives from Spain:
Once upon a time the Netherlands were ruled by the Spanish king. That's what happens when your rulers are determined by the succession of  royal families, the Hapsburg in this case.
The English and French never quite got over Eleanor of Aquitaine, same idea. The Dutch anthem, written for the first William of Orange in the 16th century, still mentions loyalty to the King of Spain.

Just before the Dutch kicked the Spaniards out of the Netherlands Ferdinand and Isabella had been chasing the Moors out of Spain. A pity, since life had been good in the cities of Anadalusia, but so it goes. Perhaps that is why Piet's costume dates from that time.

Zwarte Piet carries a switch, and a big bag. The switch is for giving kids who have been naughty a good hiding (wie zoet is krijgt lekkers, wie stout is de roe). The bag holds toys, but can also be used to carry really hardcore bad kids back to Spain once the tour is over. Legend is vague about the punishment that awaits them there, the vague threat was enough.

Then there is the white horse! Zachtjes gaan de paardevoehoetjes, trippeltrappel trippeltrap.
It carries Sinterklaas over the roof tops. Zwarte Piet drops presents down the chimney. 
Sinterklaas is the patron saint of the city, so he wears the emblem of the city on his mitre.

As soon as Sinterklaas is in the country, somewhere in late November, children can place their shoe by the chimney in the evening and find it filled with a small gift or at least some candy in the morning. Certain candies are only seen at that time of year. There is TaaiTaai, a chewy sort of gingerbread, and the wonderful thick speculaas, in the shape of Sinterklaas. Pepernoten, little ginger cookie balls especially used to be thrown around by Zwarte Piet, small sugar animals, and chocolate letters. This was one time of year when I wished my name was Wilma or Mieke instead of Ien, since one usually receives one's initial. People usually had mercy and gave me an H, for my last name van der Hout.

Setting the shoe was a ritual: we had to sing for our candy, and sometimes we left a carrot or some water for the horse. Sinterklaas Kapoentje, the song sung by the little Dutch orphan in the original "Miracle on 34th street" was the most used for this occasion.

After weeks of anticipation it was finally time for THE evening. This is, or at least was, the big gift giving occasion. Christmas was a church and family affair.

There is more to a good successful Sinterklaas than a pile of loot. Once the givers reach a certain age they are expected to take extra trouble with at least some of the gifts.
The ultimate is to present a gift wrapped in a "surprise" (pronounced the French way) that somehow says something about the recipient. For example, you have bought a watch for a fanatical soccer player in the family. You might create a papier mache soccer ball, and hide the watch inside.
And then there is the poem, to be read by the one who receives the gift. It doesn't have to be great literature, as long it rimes and is funny.

For my Dutch, Flemish or Afrikaans readers, here is part of one that Dad made for Mom. It went on about her habit of interrupting his reading with her puzzle questions. She did the devilishly difficult cryptogram every Saturday, and would not rest till she solved the darned thing.
Pappa zat rustig in zijn stoel
En Ma keek met een ernstig smoel
In de krant
En langs de kant
stonden woordjes
aaneengeregen als koordjes

This is our family in 1954.
I had good parents, and appreciate them more with each
passing year.

And that is enough nostalgia!

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