In other words, Happy Sinterklaas!!!!
For those of you who may not know, I spent a glorious and exciting semester abroad in the Netherlands in the fall of 2005, which means that I got to celebrate Sinterklaas for the very first time. For purposes of context, I am also almost finished reading Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris (I recommend) and he devoted a chapter to Sinterklaas and how awesomely funny it is to Americans. In the same spirit, I am going to share my love for this wonderfully racist and quirky holiday with all y’all.
Sinterklaas is the celebration of Saint Nicholas Day, and it falls on December 5th. The Dutchie version of Saint Nick is the former bishop of Turkey and lives in Spain. He’s still a white dude wearing red, just add a pope’s hat and maybe a little bit of a tan from the Spanish sun. What I don’t get is that many Dutchies don’t like Turkish immigrants and think they should go back home, yet they welcome this man every year. Maybe it’s just because Sinterklaas goes home before wearing out his welcome? Or maybe Turkish immigrants just need to bring presents with them when they come. Take note, Turks.
Sinterklaas is much more practical than our American Santa Claus. Flying reindeer? Yeah right. Around the world in just one night? Please. Of course, Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat from Spain in mid November and spends those few weeks riding his white horse in parades and handing out goodies before he heads back home on December 6th. The main boat arrival into Rotterdam (I think it’s Rotterdam) is televised with great excitement, and then numerous other smaller boat arrivals take place for smaller villages with their own harbors. For those villages without a harbor, Sinterklaas usually arrives by horse, as he did in Utrecht where I was living.
Now, Saint Nick doesn’t come alone. He has “six to eight” helpers, each named Swarte Piet (translation: Black Pete), who are usually young men in startling blackface with bright red lips wearing bright colored tunics with puffy sleeves and feathers in their equally bright, fluffy hats. Why blackface? The original explanation is that Swarte Pieten are slaves Sinterklaas saved from Ethiopia (what was he doing in Ethiopia??) and are now sooo grateful to be saved that they stick around and help him deliver gifts and torment kids (more on the tormenting later). The newer, more PC explanation is that Piet has black soot all over his gosh-darn face from going down all those chimneys to deliver gifts every year. Hmmm, maybe Piet should ask for some moist towelettes from Sinterklaas this year.
The most horrifying part for me was going to the parade to see Sinterklaas and his horse gallantly trot into Utrecht to the delight of little boys and girls…who were also dressed in blackface. What the what?! It is one thing for legal adults to smear their faces and portray former slaves, but apparently Dutch parents do this to their kids to get them into the holiday spirit. Worse still, is that the Dutch see nothing wrong with this and my Dutch friends insisted that I calm down (this is one thing that I was told consistently during my stay in the Netherlands, that as an American I needed to calm the fuck down. Good thing they have lots of coffeeshops for that.)
So, where were we? Sinterklaas comes from Spain on his boat with Swarte Pieten, switches to his white horse and then proceeds to parade through the city, waving and handing out goodies. This is where Swarte Piet pegs the onlookers with tiny snickerdoodles, or pepernoten. Seriously, they run around and throw handfuls of these things at people (not to them). Maybe there is a point system, more points for kids and the elderly. Pepernoten are quarter sized, hard, not-very-tasty gingerbread-like-things, and it seems that Swarte Piet has the right idea that they are better suited as weapons than as sweets.
Now we get to the excitement of the night of December 5th. Traditionally, cute little blonde Dutch kids would put their painfully uncomfortable wooden shoes out by the fireplace and leave some goodies for Sinterklaas, Swarte Piet, but most often carrots and hay for the white horse (looking back, now I get why the white horse gets all the love…). In return, the shoes would be filled with candies and a small present. Nowadays, Dutchies leave their shoes by a heater or, as I was taught, right outside either the bedroom door or on the front or back porch and hope that the white horse doesn’t leave some other kind of stinky gift in there. One awesome Sinterklaas goodie kids can expect is a big-ass piece of chocolate in the shape of the first letter of their first name.
What happens if you’re bad, you ask? In America you just get coal, and you should consider yourselves freaking lucky, my friends. Sinterklaas apparently doesn’t take any shit from anyone, and if you’re bad he sends his Swarte Pieten after you, and you know that these former slaves know a thing or two about corporal punishment. Swarte Pieten carry burlap sacks with them, and if they encounter a bad child, they put that poor, helpless soul in the bag, drag him outside, beat him with a switch, and then if the situation warrants it, they kidnap him and take him back to Spain. What they do with this kid once he gets to Spain, I have no idea. Maybe he’s broken down and retrained Jason Bourne-style to become part of the next generation of cutthroat Swarte Pieten. I heard that in the old days, family friends would take turns coming to each other’s houses dressed as Sinterklaas and Swarte Piet to perform some of these fear-inducing rituals on their kids, but nowadays parents just tell these stories to their kids to hopefully still scare them into submission.
During their stay in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas and Swarte Piet visit many public places like town squares and shopping malls and schools. He made sure not to miss coming to University College Utrecht during one of our lunch periods. There we were, eating some sort of mystery pastry (the Dutch seem to get a kick out of making yummy looking pastry and then filling it with something heinous, like meat and peas), when all of a sudden six to eight black men came sprinting into the dining hall, chucking handfuls of pepernoten at us. Now, this university is an international university, run in English and with an American grading system, so many of the students (about 1/3 of the student body) were not Dutch, and we had a good American representation. Well, us Americans thought, “What the fuck? These crazy-ass black men run all up in here and throw disgusting, tooth-cracking cookies at us and we’re just gonna take it? No, sir!” And we did what came naturally. We threw the pepernoten right back, along with some food for good measure. Like hell we were gonna get beaten with switches….although, come to think of it, Spain probably would have been really nice that time of year.
Then in came Sinterklaas, and we straightened up a bit. I remember he said something to us in Dutch, and then the moment I had been dreading – our Dutch language professor made us non-Dutchies learn a Sinterklaas song and we had to get up and sing it to Sinterklaas himself in front of the whole dining hall.
I did my best to mouth the words (what little of them I knew) and hide my voice in with the rest. At that point, I would have preferred a small beating instead. After Sinterklaas left, the food fight resumed. Boo-yah.
Aside from Sinterklaas giving the kids gifts, I learned about how Dutch families exchange gifts for the holiday. Usually families choose names so that each person only buys one gift (I like this so far). It is customary to creatively wrap the gift in order to disguise what is inside, and also to make the wrapping somehow significant to the recipient. For instance, my group of friends chose names and I chose my Dutch friend Floris. He likes maps and travel, and so I wrapped his gift in a map. I remember my friend Shady wrapped her gift and placed it on the plate of a place setting from our dining hall, using a plastic tray and all the stolen silverware and dishes. I forget the significance…..but I think it was for Jozef who liked to eat a lot. What also must accompany the gift is a poem about the recipient. This poem usually makes reference to what their gift may be and/or pokes fun at the person’s character traits/defects. Yet another small look into the darker, meaner underbelly of Dutch culture.
So there you have it. Sinterklaas 101. So tonight, remember to leave your shoes out…and hope that you don’t wake up bruised on the Spanish shoreline. Or do, you know, if you like that kind of thing.
Trek uwe beste tabberd an,
Reis daar mee naar Amsterdam,
Van Amsterdam naar Spanje,
Daar Appelen van Oranje,
Daar Appelen van granaten,
Die rollen door de straten.