Susan Muthalaly on why this is a great time to be in the Netherlands
As I got ready to leave the house this morning, a typical Haarlem winter’s day, I found the right boot of my favourite pair was missing. I was in a hurry, so I didn’t bother to look for it, and pulled out another pair, only to discover, that the right foot for this too was not to be found. All my shoes on the shoe rack had the same problem. And then I realized what was going on. I had been a relatively good girl this year. I ran to the living room, and sure enough, there were my right shoes, lined up next to the heater. Each shoe was spilling over with little button-sized cookies — pepernoten.
My Dutch husband beamed at me, as I politely picked one up and popped it in my mouth. It tasted of socks, but in keeping with the spirit of the season, I ate a few more. Because these were presents from Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, as he is known around the world. The patron saint of sailors and little children has a special place in Dutch households.
Every year, at around this time, he arrives from Spain by steamboat, accompanied by his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes), to great fanfare and coverage on National TV. There are parades through the various villages and towns, and the country is teaming with various sizes of Sinterklaases and Black Petes; as children come as their favourite character, riding on the shoulders of their parents to get a better view of the goings-on. Once he arrives in the Netherlands, every night children put out a carrot for Sinterklaas’ white horse Amerigo, alongside their shoes for Sint to put presents into. The shoes used to be placed near the chimneys as Black Pete came through them to leave the gifts for the good children. The bad ones got the rough end of a broom on their behinds. Nowadays, the shoes are left near the electrical heaters, a modern adaptation with no logic. In the morning, the carrot has gone and the shoes are filled with small presents or candy.
If the Sinterklaas figure sounds familiar, it is because he is the inspiration for Santa Claus, which probably took seed when the Dutch colonised New York and other parts of North America in the early 17th century. He developed into the universally-recognised jolly, fat man in red with the belly laugh from the intimidating, tall, lean figure in red, over the decades.
The grand finale is Sinterklaasavond, December 5, the eve of St Nicholas Day. Families gather together to distribute presents from a big sack, presumably left by the Saint on the doorstep. Young children are distracted as some adult sneaks out and hurl pepernoten through the window. As they scamper to collect it, someone bangs loudly on the door, and leaves the sack of presents outside. Each present is often accompanied by poems poking fun at the receiver. And when you receive your present, you have to loudly say “Thank you Sinterklaas”.
Great trouble is taken to keep up the charade for little Dutch children. At the parade in the town square, where marching bands of Piets accompany Sinterklaas on his white horse Amerigo to meet the children, I made the mistake of asking whether the Sinterklaas job paid well , and was glared at fiercely. “Please, some child may hear you!” hissed my husband, who takes the tradition very seriously.
This belief in Sinterklaas as this wonderful man whose arrival is the highlight of the year is difficult to understand unless you grow up with it. Yesterday, while walking home I had a little insight into this. There was a bloodcurdling scream, followed by what I realised after my heart resumed its activity, were squeals of delight. “Zwarte Piet, aeeeeeee! En Sinterklaas.” Three children who were till then knocking about peacefully across the road, were now racing after a van as it cruised past.
The driver was Black Pete, a man with a blackened face and thick red lips painted on. He had big gold hoops in his ears, and he wore a colourful tunic with a matching cap. The van was packed with Petes. It stopped a few metres down the road, and more neighbourhood children crowded around the sliding door, all bubbling with excitement and hysterical cries of delight. A tall man who looked like he walked out of one of the stained glass windows of the stately church in the town square stepped out. He had long silver hair and a silver beard down to his belly, and was dressed in red robes, a bishop’s hat adorned with a gold cross and was carrying a staff. Sinterklaas.
This year the official Sinterklaas arrived in the South-East city of Dordrecht, an event telecast live on National TV. The mayor of Dordrecht, puffed up with pride, shook hands with children hanging patiently over the barriers, waiting for news of Sint and Pete’s arrival. A few moments previously, he was shown in his office in video conference with Sint. The coverage switched to the Saint and his Piets disembarking from the boats, a vision the anchor compared to being “as grand as the Spanish Armada”. An unfortunate comparison, as it alludes to an unpleasant time in Dutch history, when another fleet of Catholics from Spain waged war against the Lowlands. Sinterklaas is of course, clearly a Catholic figure. And his Black Pete is clearly a caricature of black slaves that Dutch sailors traded during the height of their colonies.
But over the decades, the country has rid itself of these inconvenient associations with the celebration of their favourite Saint. He’s become a non-religious figure, and the politically correct explanation for Piet’s appearance is that he’s black because he climbs through chimneys to leave presents.
Sinterklaas season is a great time to be in the Netherlands. It is fairly commercialised, with big department stores hiring their own Sints and team of Piets to deal with the restless little shoppers. Pepernoten and chocolate letters are everywhere. It’s become a tradition in our house to gift a chocolate letter corresponding to our guests’ first initials during this time.
But the festival is still celebrated as a family event, of songs, pea soup and funny stories. And I’m happy to have another reason to get presents before Christmas.