I’ve been noticing some freaked out messages on social media these past weeks from friends visiting my mother country and who don’t understand why there are blacked up dolls hanging in the shop windows. They thought the Netherlands was such a sophisticated and tolerant country. What has happened to the country’s social and moral values since Dutch Girl left for London?
I can assure you that these curious window displays are not a ‘subtle’ demonstration of the shop owners’ racial intolerance. Actually, these dolls represent Sinterklaas’ helpers. Sinterklaas is a saint whose name day is celebrated on the 5th of December in the Netherlands. And the faces of his helpers colour black from climbing through people’s chimneys in the middle of the night while everybody is vast asleep. Okay, I realise this is starting to sound very weird and confusing now, so let me start at the beginning.
The weeks before 5 December
The name Sinterklaas (in short: Sint) is a corruption of Sint Nicolaas (‘Saint Nicholas’). He is a holy man who arrives in the Netherlands around mid-November by steamboat from his home in Madrid. He travels with his companions the Zwarte Pieten (‘Black Petes’) and his loyal grey horse, Amerigo.
Each year a different Dutch city has the honour of welcoming Sint and his entourage while their grand arrival is broadcasted on national TV. The mayor leads Sinterklaas around the city while hundreds of children and their parents standing behind fences along the route cheer and sing special festive songs. Because Sinterklaas is very old, he is seated on his horse. The Zwarte Pieten interact with the audience and hand out or toss around typical Sinterklaas treats called pepernoten (‘peppernuts’) or kruidnoten (literally: ‘spice nuts’).
In the weeks prior to the big Sinterklaas feast on the 5th of December, children put their shoes by the chimney (or nowadays by the radiator, door or window) before bedtime and leave a drawing for Sinterklaas and a carrot, a bowl of water or some hay for the horse by their shoes. They also sing a traditional Sinterklaas song which Sinterklaas is able to hear from afar of course due to his supersonic Superman-ish hearing. In return, the children receive small toys or chocolate in their shoes. At night Sinterklaas rides over the rooftops on his horse while the children are asleep. The Zwarte Pieten would traditionally climb through the chimneys to leave the presents and treats in the children’s shoes. Nowadays, they simply enter people’s houses through the door or window. These exciting weeks end with a big climax on the eve of the 5th of December when children receive a ridiculous amount of presents. After that, it is life as usual (at least till Christmas arrives a few weeks later).
These are in a nutshell the events that take place in the Netherlands for about three weeks between mid-November and the 5th of December. Around this time of the year young children have many sleepless nights as they are too excited to sleep, but also their parents have sleepless nights as they try to figure out how to afford all these presents. Ah yes, let me burst your bubble: parents actually leave the presents and treats in their children’s shoes, not Sinterklaas…
Still confused about this all? I don’t blame you as I am now too (and I’ve been familiar with this concept for over thirty years now)! Bear with me and I’ll explain it even further in a minute. But first I’ll quote a traditional Sinterklaas song I used to sing as a little girl. It is very funny to realise that most of these songs have been used for generations now and contain words no one knows the meaning of anymore. I used to sing these songs with all my heart and soul, but obviously didn’t really know what I was actually singing. Read the text below and hear the song here.
gooi wat in mijn schoentje,
gooi wat in mijn laarsje,
dank U Sinterklaasje!
throw something in my shoe,
throw something in my boot,
thank you Sainty Nic!
Note the underlined word. I just looked up the meaning of the word kapoen and I am bewildered as I found out it means ‘castrated rooster’. Eh……. ?!?
Okay, just so you know that Dutch people are not entirely mad, here is the explanation according to a linguistics website: the castrated characteristic might be an association with Sinterklaas’ celibacy. As you will read below he was a bishop. Hmmm, let’s quickly move on and hope none of my readers will have nightmares about bishops and roosters tonight…
Sinterklaas’ true identity
So, who is this Sinterklaas person? And who are his chimney-crawling helpers?
And why do parents go through so much trouble of putting presents in their children’s shoes year after year after year?
There are many theories about Sinterklaas’ true identity. Fact is that he is a saint. The theory I am most familiar with is that he is actually based on a real historical character: Nicholas from Myra, a small village in present-day Turkey. He was a bishop who was declared a saint after his death on the 6th of December in 342AD. It wasn’t till the 13th century that the 5th of December was declared as his name day. In some countries such as Germany, Sinterklaas is celebrated on his date of death, the 6th of December.
Sinterklaas was declared patron of children, which explains his close association with children nowadays. Legend says he brought three children back to life. In another story he saves children from prostitution by throwing gold coins through their window. With this money their father could pay off his debts which was the reason for their forced prostitution. Present-day tradition of the Zwarte Pieten tossing around sweets and pepernoten still symbolises this story.
The Dutch tradition of having one’s shoes filled with presents dates back from at least the 15th century. Originally it took place in church on the 5th of December. The day’s proceeds were donated to the poor.
Sinterklaas’ attire is very distinctive and always consists of a long red tabard (cape) with a long white bishop dress underneath and a red mitre on his head. He also holds a golden crosier (a pastoral staff carried by bishops).
Huh? Is he from Turkey or from Spain?
This has always confused me as a kid. I knew that he might have been a Turkish bishop, but why did he travel from Spain to the Netherlands then every year? And why did I have to send my letters and wish list to Sinterklaas’ address in Madrid?
Once again the internet has an answer to my crucial question: the fact that Sinterklaas nowadays has a Spanish postal code is due to a misinterpretation of another traditional Sinterklaas song. The song states that Sinterklaas has to travel to Spain to pick up oranges. Eventually this got misinterpreted and hence Spain was made into his new home.
Will the real Santa please stand up
This story about Sinterklaas so far might remind you of someone you vaguely remember, but can’t really place. Might it be a déjà vu? Don’t worry, it’s not a glitch in the matrix. More likely, this story is reminding you of another magical, bearded children’s hero dressed in red and bearing presents: Santa Claus.
It is not a coincidence that their names sound alike, they look quite similar and both give presents to children in December. It might be a shock to American readers, but Santa Claus is actually based on Sinterklaas! It dates back from the time that New York was still a Dutch colony and was known as New Amsterdam. Say Sinterklaas out loud. And now say Santa Claus.
I rest my case.
Reason for UN discussions
Okay, the saint part should be clear by now, but what’s up with those blacked up helpers? I heard stories from English friends arriving in Amsterdam around Sinterklaas time and were shocked to see blacked up white people with curly black hair, big red lips and dressed up in old pagan type outfits. I realise this comes across as very racist, but to be truthful, and perhaps rather naive, I have never interpreted this as an act of racism. Neither did I ever during my childhood hear a Dutch person (be it a white person or a ‘coloured’ person as myself) say it is unheard of or that the black Petes should be abolished. However, the existence of ‘black’ helpers of a dominant white man sitting high on his horse has been a topic of debate within the United Nations this year. After further investigations charges of racism against the Netherlands have been dropped. This UN investigation stirred up quite a debate in the Netherlands resulting in demonstrations in the streets and online petitions, both against and in favour of Zwarte Piet. Zwarte Piet has been saved for this year, but I wonder if it isn’t time to update this old tradition and create a colourful Piet v3.0?
Like Sinterklaas, there are also various theories about the origins of Zwarte Piet. I grew up with the explanation that Zwarte Piet was a chimney sweeper and therefore had a black face and carried a roe, which is a chimney sweep broom made of branches. Around Sinterklaas time I was always at my best behaviour because everybody knew that Piet would spank bad children with his roe, and even put them in his jute bag to take them back to Spain as punishment (going to Spain doesn’t really sound as a punishment to me though).
Another theory, and a more plausible one, is that Nicholas from Myra freed an Ethiopian slave boy named ‘Piter’. The grateful boy decided to stay with Sinterklaas as his helper.
Although I realise that the resemblances to African slaves can’t be justified, it must be made clear that Zwarte Piet is far from a docile and dumb slave. The Zwarte Pieten are in fact smart and funny guys and are the ones who keep things running at Sinterklaas HQ and solve problems while Sinterklaas is a bit forgetful and absent-minded.
Sinterklaas the movie star
In 2010 Sinterklaas starred in a Dutch horror film: Sint (Saint). I saw the film in the cinema. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really worth a trip to the cinema… Two years ago I also took this photo in a Dutch bookshop where they sold Sinterklaas glossy magazines. You see, Sinterklaas is a true celebrity in the Netherlands!
I have many more stories and facts about Sinterklaas to share with you, but I want to take a bite of my chocolate letter now. So make sure to be good for a year and I might treat you on more Sint news next year!
NOTE: unlike other pages and posts on my website, I have used some photos from other websites in this post.