Sinterklaas and a couple Zwarte Piets on the rooftops of Sneek.
The Christmas festivities begin here in mid-November with the arrival of Sinterklaas at a designated seaside town. He supposedly comes from Spain, not the North Pole. This takes place in a different port each year. Smaller local arrivals usually take place later on the same Saturday. We’re in Sneek where the whole city is awaiting the arrival of Sinterklaas.
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After the boat anchors Sinterklaas disembarks and parades through the crowded streets on a white horse, called Amerigo. He carries a big, red book in which is written whether each child has been naughty or nice. He is welcomed by throngs of cheering families singing traditional Sinterklaas songs. His Zwarte Piet crew, or Zwarte pieten, throw candy and small, round, gingerbread-like cookies into the crowd.
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The Feast of Saint Nicholas, by Jan Steen, 1660s (The little boy didn’t get any!)
Sinterklaas is a legendary figure based on Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, who are the principal focus of the festival. The origins of Saint Nicholas may first appear to be Christian, but in fact are from ancient Germanic mythology.
The Dutch figure of Sinterklaas somewhat mirrors the god Odin, they both have a beard, hat and spear, now a staff, and a cloth bag held by the servants to capture naughty children. Both Saint Nicolas and Odin ride white horses that can fly through the air. The poems and songs children sing relate to Odin as the god of poetry.
The chocolate letters given by the Zwarte Pieten to the children evoke the fact that Odin created the rune letters.
He is also the basis for the North American figure of Santa Claus. It is often claimed that during the American War of Independence, the inhabitants of New York City, the former Dutch colonial town of New Amsterdam, reinvented their Sinterklaas tradition, because Saint Nicholas was a symbol of the city’s non-English past.
Sinterklaas is said to come from Spain. In 1087, half of Saint Nicholas’ relics were transported to the Italian city of Bari, in the Spanish Kingdom of Naples so that might be the reason. Others suggest that mandarin oranges, traditionally gifts associated with St. Nicholas, led to the misconception that he must have been from Spain.
Sinterklaas is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colorful Moorish dresses. These elfish characters, called Zwarte Piet or “Black Pete”, first appeared in print as just one nameless servant of Saint Nicholas in1850. Over the years Zwarte Piet has developed from a rather unintelligent helper into a valuable assistant to the absent-minded and frequently inebriated saint. Now Sinterklaas has formed a whole crew of Zwarte Pieten for every function from navigation, gift-wrapping to climbing over roofs and down chimneys.
Zwarte Piet’s costume is based on 16th-century noble attire, with a feathered cap and a ruff collar. He carries a bag containing candy for the children, a tradition originating in the story of Saint Nicholas saving three young girls from prostitution by tossing golden coins through their window at night to pay their dowries.
Traditionally, Black Pete carries a chimney sweep’s broom made of willow branches, which he used to spank children who had been naughty. Older Sinterklaas songs suggest that naughty children were put in the bag and taken back to Spain. This legend refers to the times when Moors raided the European coasts to capture future slaves. Today, Zwarte Piet no longer carries the rod or threatens children with abduction for being naughty.
As you can well imagine Zwarte Piet has turned into a rather controversial character. Traditionally Zwarte Piet’s face is said to be black because he is Moorish. Today, some prefer to say that his face is blackened with soot because he has to climb through chimneys to deliver gifts for Sinterklaas.
Regardless, the figure of Zwarte Piet is considered by some to be racist and the traditions surrounding Sinterklaas have been the subject of many editorials, debates, documentaries, protests and even violent clashes at festivals.
This year vans of protesters were turned back before reaching Dorkum, the site of the national arrival of Sinterklaas. Some southern Dutch cities and television channels will only display Zwarte Piet with a few soot marks on the face rather than full blackface and are called “chimney Petes”. Still, Zwarte Piet remains very popular in the Netherlands. A 2013 survey suggests that 92% of the Dutch public did not perceive Zwarte Piet as racist or associate him with slavery, and 91% were opposed to altering the character’s appearance, but I imagine in just the 4 years since that survey, things have changed considerably.
Some Interesting But Useless Facts:
1. During the German occupation of the Netherlands (1940–1945) many of the traditional Sinterklaas rhymes were rewritten to reflect current events. After the RAF dropped boxes of candy over occupied Netherlands in 1941 they became much celebrated.
Original: Sinterklaas, little capon, Throw something in my little shoe, Throw something in my little boot, Thank you little Sinterklaas.
World War II version: R.A.F. little Capon, throw something in my little shoe, throw bombs at the Krauts but scatter candy in Holland!
2. The Dutch have two days of Christmas, Kerstmis, called Eerste Kerstdag and Tweede Kerstdag first and second Christmas Day on 25 & 26 December.