Did you know that Santa Claus is not the original Saint Nick? Nope, he’s not. The Dutch Sinterklaas beat him to it. In fact, it was the Dutch who brought the tale of Santa Claus to the US (as Sinterklaas which was then modified over time) back when New York City was New Amsterdam. And get this, everyone celebrates him, no matter what their religion. He is a patron saint of children – it does not matter what their belief system is, he gives to all.
Both Santa Claus and Sinterklaas are based off Nikolaos of Myra, a Greek bishop known for secret gift giving. He became Saint Nicholas around the 4th century. Like our American Santa Claus, Sinterklaas is all about the children and giving gifts to those who have been very good. But this is where the similarities end.
First off, he arrives via steamboat from, get this, Spain. Yes, Spain. How ironic given we’ve just arrived from Spain ourselves. A sign perhaps? And once he arrives by water, he gets on his white horse, Amerigo, to go from home to home giving gifts to the children. The gifts don’t go under a Christmas tree, after all, he gives the gifts weeks before Christmas on December 5th! No, they go in the children’s shoes that are left by the fireplace.
It’s not Sinterklaas that goes down the chimney either. It’s one of his Zwarte Piets that go down. More on him soon as he’s pretty controversial these days and I don’t want to miss out on giving you the details about that. Anyways, Zwarte Piet goes down the chimney to deliver the gifts to all the good girls and boys. Hopefully the children have left carrots in their shoes for Amerigo!
Sinterklaas arrives by boat sometime around November 15th to a city designated each year. This year it was Gouda and it is televised around the country. After his initial arrival, he will then visit each town and city in the Netherlands (via boat and horse) on different dates. Our date here in Naarden is Saturday, November 22. This marks the start of the festivities and children receive small (usually food) gifts each day like pepernoten, speculaas or a chocolate letter (the child’s first initial) until December 5th which is Sinterklaas’ birthday and that is when they receive the majority of their presents. The sack is left at the front door of each child’s home with presents in it. It is also tradition that Sinterklaas leaves a funny poem about the recipient of the gifts.
As this is a holiday to celebrate children, I want to touch upon the Zwarte Piet controversy but I don’t want to linger upon it. And while I’m of the opinion that I can see the racism in this celebration, I can also see tradition and how much the Dutch embrace their beloved Piet. It seems to be that outsiders, like ourselves, are the ones that are offended by the blackfaced character and how he is perceived. I think that this is where we as the outsiders go wrong – there is perception and there is intent. This festival for children is meant to be innocent and not intended to be hurtful in any way. Interestingly both of my children are in agreement and have said that they will not dress up as Zwarte Piet (many children often dress up) and find him to be offensive. According to some news I have read online recently while researching this entry, the majority of Dutch people do not see Zwarte Piet as a racist issue and that he is just the helper of Sinterklaas and that it is a childhood tradition – is this ignorance or just people trying to hold tight to a tradition that they feel too many are trying to take away? Some say his skin color comes from being a Moor that Sinterklaas rescued and others say it is the soot from the chimneys that he goes down to deliver presents to the children. Regardless of his origin, this has become a hot button subject and also has caused a few arrests during the most recent Sinterklaas celebrations over the last week.
So back to Sinterklaas, we had not one but two outings this weekend where we get to meet the “real” St. Nick. First off was down to The Hague to Josh’s manufacturing plant (which was very cool to see) where they put on a puppet show for the kids as well as a visit from Sinterklaas and two Zwarte Pieten. I learned a few things here that I feel I need to share:
1. As an American it’s hard to not see the Zwarte Piet character in a racist viewpoint. However, watching the local children and how they sang songs with him, embracing these traditions and seeing him through innocent eyes, put a different perspective on him for me. I want to be offended by the blackfaces painted on the children but when you see the happiness and joy on their faces because they look just like Zwarte Piet, you see that it’s not about skin color but about being just like a character that they, and generations before, adore. Many were even dressed in medieval costumes just like Piet.
2. While we couldn’t understand a word of what was happening, it was easy enough to understand that Sinterklaas is a funny guy. The kids loved him. And the Pieten. From what I’ve read, Sinterklaas has become known as a bit of an absentminded kind of guy and Piet has become more of his assistant, helping him out and I could definitely see that even though we could not understand the words that were spoken. I could also see how enraptured the children all were.
3. This one was a big one and a party foul on our part. Aidan’s gift happened to be first and so we let him unwrap it. Only to find out that all the little children, down to just one or two years old, waited patiently before unwrapping the gifts until Sinterklaas gave the ok and then all tore open their presents at once. Thankfully Liam’s was the last gift and we were able to give him eye signals to wait until the others opened theirs before he opened his. I have to say, I have never seen so many children be able to wait so patiently to unwrap a present – that is some willpower!!
4. While I think this type of event would not be acceptable in many places, I think you truly have to experience it in order to understand the culture and history behind it before judging.
We returned home from the Hague mid day and just relaxed til our next big event – Sinterklaas was coming to Naarden Vesting. As I mentioned above, it’s traditional for Sinterklaas to arrive by boat from Spain. That is no different here in Naarden. Every town has it’s own celebration – after all, there are no towns here that don’t have some waterway for him to arrive by. Ours was in the Vesting, our center of town. We arrived around 4PM, about an hour before the festivities were beginning. In the US we are not as it was practically empty. However, we did score spots right across from where Sinterklaas gets off his boat and were in the front row (of what later ended up about 7 or 8 people deep). Eventually it got pretty crowded and space was at a premium – between Aidan and the kid next to me, I was being stepped on or elbowed every 3 seconds. I think we were all ready for Sinterklaas to arrive!
But because we were so early, it took some time, about an hour and a half after our arrival. The kids were pretty antsy to say the least. But we had some fun distractions with amazing jump ropers (not sure what they have to do with Sinterklaas but was still cool to watch) and then a local marching band. We had the occasional visit from Zwarte Piet as well – I think just to whet our appetite to get ready for the big guy.
Finally the moment came – first it was the Zwarte Pieten that came on several boats, doing their water acrobatics in a sense, getting the crowd warmed up. Then Sinterklaas arrived by steamboat as promised. The boys, who were so done by then, suddenly got their second wind and were excited by Sinterklaas’ arrival.
Finally here he is!! The video is long but you’ll hear all the kids (except ours since they don’t know the songs) screaming out the tunes to welcome Sinterklaas to Naarden! While I know it’s long, it’s worth watching to see how they lead up to Sinterklaas’ arrival on the steamboat. And yes, he arrives in our little village by steamboat called the Espanje III (Spain 3). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HoedYw-7JU The Pieten throw treats into the crowds – both Aidan and Liam managed to catch some!
However, minutes later they were done. We’d been there over 2 hours and they were done. What we didn’t realize was that after the “ceremony” with Sinterklaas that there is a parade which ends with Sinterklaas riding his horse, Amerigo. Liam and I saw him riding but my picture came out blurry. We went to walk around the Vesting to see all the lights (it was pretty but nothing spectacular) and found crowds upon crowds of people for the parade.
Eventually we made our way back to the car and headed for home. It was a fun night and a new tradition to learn about. So tonight the boys will put their shoes by the fireplace and who knows what magic will happen… here is to a new country and new traditions.