Traditional winter holiday figures and on explaining it abroad

Today is the day after… The day after the eve of 5 December with celebrations of the traditional winter holiday figure Sinterklaas in the Netherlands and various other countries. Today is the day of the German figure Sankt Nikolaus. If you do a bit of research you find other closely related figures celebrated in other cultures. Santa Claus is famously celebrated on Christmas Eve and is the more modern figure of the lot.

Sinter Claes on Dam square
From Wikipedia by Alix Guillard

Having some not-so-nice and mostly great memories on Dutch Sinterklaas, when abroad, how does one go about explaining the ins and outs in a politically correct manner? As a young child, I was scared of the man. But then the final turning point came when I helped Sinterklaas and transformed into a Zwarte Piet. Not a black swan but one of the many black helpers of Sinterklaas (Black Petes). On to some context for this story.

5 December is originally the name day of Saint Nicholas, who is the patron saint of amongst others children and the city of Amsterdam, see image. History on Sinterklaas, and related foreign figures, goes back possibly to pre-Christian Europe. Dutch tradition is that Sinterklaas is from Spain, comes to the Netherlands in a steamboat and, as mentioned above, has black servants with colourful clothes. Historical explanations consist of respectively Sinterklaas’ remains being in then-Spanish territory, Sinterklaas’ patronage of sailors, and Spain was part of the Moor empire at the time. Lately the latter has also been explained because Pete has to climb down dirty chimneys to deliver gifts.

Some other elements part of the tradition:

  • Sinterklaas
    From Wikipedia by Erik Bro

    Sinterklaas wears a bishop outfit, is a serious elderly stately man with long white hair and beard, carries a staff and has a book on whether each child was good or naughty in the past year.

  • Sinterklaas rides a white greyish horse on the rooftops, delivering presents via the chimney.
  • Black Petes carry a bag with candy and broom, have dedicated tasks, such as “Navigation Pete” who provides the directions or acrobatic Petes who climb roofs and deliver presents, and all generally are a bit naughty with usually some pranks in store.
  • Good is rewarded (presents) and evil is punished (warning to prank naughty children with a chimney sweep’s broom and to place the children in a sack and take back to Spain away from home).
  • Dedicated songs that really bring people in the Sinterklaas mood.
  • Zwarte Piet
    From Wikipedia by EnSintClopedie

    Children put one shoe in front of the door or fireplace, may place an apple or a carrot in the shoe for the horse or something for Sinterklaas, sing a song and go to bed; in the morning there will be a small present or some candy in the shoe (historically money in shoes of the poor).

  • Although more of a children’s feast, Sinterklaas cheers everyone including adults; adults may draw a name from another person to give a present to, see next bullet point.
  • Personalized rhymes or poems are written and given together with presents, which in turn could be in the form of a “surprise” (pronounce it the French way); packaged in a special way through e.g. creatively disguising the gift with handicraft.
  • Candy such as ginger-bread cookies “pepernoten”, marzipan and chocolate letters; usually you get and eat the first letter of your first name.
  • Yearly arrival of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands is a national television broadcast and most towns and villages welcome Sinterklaas in procession form.
  • Presents on the evening of the 5th arrive in a sack but Pete sometimes is a bit mischievous here and knocks on the window to leave the sack outside and run off quickly or the presents are hidden somewhere in the house.

Arrival of SinterklaasWell, this story may explain the tradition and do some justice to it. I have had some funny conversations explaining it to people not familiar with Sinterklaas and who are from a different heritage.

While going through all this I relived some wonderful memories. I have had some scary moments, fun moments and moments full of emotion. These words are not complete in explaining everything Sinterklaas has brought. But I think giving, thankfulness, sharing, cheering, learning to overcome fears and transform into more positive emotions (here by joining them), fun, and playfulness are virtues we can all value and celebrate.

What are your thoughts on Sinterklaas? Did you celebrate it this year? How did you celebrate it? Do you have related traditions from your background?


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