Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Sinterklaas - might be the original Santa Claus!

Yes, it could be true ... even though there is some debate about this theory. ( btw: Since we are Dutch cats living in Holland, we're not entertaining any debates on this issue, ... so don't even think about it! *meow*)

Gouache painting of "The Sinterklaas Pen!"
copyright Judith Nijholt-Strong, 2006
Talens & Holbein gouache and
Micron pen on Arches watercolor paper.
5.5"x 5.5" (painting size)

The Dutch Sinterklaas could be the original predecessor of the American Santa Claus and the Anglo-Canadian & British, Father Christmas. 'Santa Claus' is the mis-pronounced Dutch word, Sinterklaas. In the 1600's, the Dutch settlers in America (New Amsterdam or 'Nieuw Amsterdam' , which is now New York), brought their customs & traditions to the new world - as did all other immigrants, past & present, of course! It is also proposed, by some scholars, that the British 'Father Christmas' was derived from the American Santa Claus. These scholars suggest that English colonists in America of the time before the revolution, brought the tradition back to England ( the Puritan immigrants to America had no such tradition for celebrating Santa Claus). Sinterklaas brings gifts to all the children in the Netherlands, just the same as Santa & Father Christmas do for all the children in the US, Canada & the UK ... but Sinterklaas has been around a lot longer and celebrated in the Netherlands for many centuries.

We'll explain a little bit about Sinterklaas and the Dutch celebration.
Sinterklaas is the Dutch tradition of celebrating the birthday (actually, it is the death day) of Saint Nicholas who was Bishop of Myra, Turkey in the 4th century. According to the legend he saved his town from starvation, other legends say he had a bad temper!!! Although Saint Nicholas ( a Greek by origin) was the Bishop in Turkey, when he died his body was stolen and taken to Bari, Italy and according to some sources he died on December 6th. If you want to read more about St. Nicholas, see this Wikipedia entry.

Each year, according to the Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas travels by stoomboot (steam boat) from Spain to the Netherlands. Why Spain, you wonder? Possibly it has something to do with the fact that St. Nicholas was the patron of sailors. In the 17th century, Holland was famous for its navigation - maybe by contact with Spanish sailors this myth began. Or perhaps it more correctly has to do with the fact that Bari, Italy was located in part of the Spanish Empire of Phillip II of Spain in the 16th century and remained a part of Spain until the 18th century - the Netherlands was also under Spanish rule.

Anyway, more of how we celebrate in Holland :
Each year, the Sint arrives in the Netherlands sometime around the 20th of November. This year he arrived in Middelburg in the province of Zeeland. From the time of his arrival, Sinterklaas then begins his travels throughout the Netherlands finding out who has been a good child, or a bad child, and writes these names down in his big red book (as Santa does, "he's making a list, checking it twice, going to find out who's been naughty or nice ...") . If you've been good, you'll get presents; if you've been bad, you'll get nothing but the rod/switch (roede) ! (Although nowadays, the idea of "the rod" is a thing of the past and every child is good! ).
.Upon his white horse (Amerigo), or even by canal boat with horse (!!), the Sint visits every village and city in Holland meeting & greeting children everywhere. He is helped in this enormous task by Zwarte Piet (plural form is Zwarte Pieten - Black Pete, Black Peters - they are possibly of moorish origin and always dressed in medieval costume.) - that's sort of like Santa and his 'helper' elves. The Zwarte Pieten throw candy & other sweets from the bags they carry around - getting hit by flying 'pepernoten' isn't always fun though! By the way, the modern (more popular) explanation of why Zwarte Piet's face is black is not that he is a moorish slave, but from all the soot he gets on himself from sliding down all those chimneys. Don't you ever wonder how come American Santa Claus never has a black face, afterall he's supposed to be doing all that chimney sliding too, isn't he? (Hmmmm, Finn is already black, and proud of it, so maybe he can be a helper for Sinterklaas next year?! ;-) ...)
A photo of our American "mom" kissing a real 'Piet'!!

photo copyright J. Nijholt-Strong, 2006
.Between the 20th of November and December 5th (the eve of St. Nicholas' feast day), children throughout Holland will often leave their shoes by the fireplace (or outside). In the shoes will be a carrot & some hay for the horse, (Amerigo), and a small note to Sinterklaas - often a wish list of desired presents. When Sinterklaas finds these shoes, he sometimes leaves a small gift in them - maybe chocolate, or pepernoten ( a gingery spice, tiny, round cookie), taai-taai ( an anise flavored, soft cookie), schuimpjes ( a soft candy similar to those American 'circus peanuts'/marshmellows), or some other little trinket/small toy. In principle, you could get a small gift every morning from November 21 to December 5th - but since Sinterklaas travels around and has so many places to visit, that isn't likely to happen.

An archive from 1477, found in the St. Nicolaaskerk (St. Nicholas church - site in english) in the city of Utrecht, describes how the shoes of the poor children were set out at night on Dec. 5th and the rich citizens of the Utrecht filled the shoes with sweets and money (geld) . Today, the little bags of foil-covered, chocolate coins that children receive, are meant to represent the gift of money; in the Dutch language they are chocoladegeld.

photo copyright J. Nijholt-Strong, 2006
Sinterklaassnoep (St. Nicholas candy)
Marzipan moon, Milk chocolate Sinterklaas, Marzipan wooden shoe

And now we come to ....

December 5th! That's tonight!!!

For weeks on end, you hope that Sinterklaas has seen your shoe with your note in it, you look each morning for a small surprise and you wait for December 5th to arrive - because that is "Pakjesavond" (gift evening)! On 'pakjesavond', Sinterklaas flys over the rooftops on his white horse ( Santa has eight reindeer). With his helpers, (the Zwarte Pieten), Sinterklaas is very busy travelling through the moonlit skies of Holland leaving gifts for the "good" children. At some time during the evening, there is a knock on your front door and the gifts are left in a burlap sack. If you're very lucky, sometimes Sinterklaas himself hands you the bag!

In the Netherlands, 'pakjesavond' is celebrated by both children and adults - it has also become more of a secular celebration as both Catholic & Protestant families enjoy the evening. However, Sinterklaas & pakjesavond do remain very much as childrens' festivities. Also on pakjesavond, funny (often really sarcastic) poems are written to (and about) each other, songs are sung and 'surprise' packages are given. These 'surprise' gifts are often packaged in a box or wrapper giving some very creative idea (actually, no idea at all) to what's inside ... the Dutch love a good surprise. :o) Everyone also gets the first letter of their first name in chocolate - chocoladeletters!!! O lekker is dat! (Oh that is yummy!)

photo used with permission of tante ' T 'A chocolate letter ' T ', for our tante ' T ' (Aunt ' T ') .

Celebrating Sinterklaas during the period of Advent and giving gifts at December 5th, instead of on the 24th or 25th of December, is the Dutch tradition/way of preserving the true meaning of Christmas - the birth of the Christ child. That is also why you won't see any Christmas lights on houses in Holland until after Dec. 5th.

Early on the morning of December 6th, Sinterklaas silently leaves Holland and sails back to Spain ... until next year.

And we sing:
"Dag, Sinterklaasje, daag, daag,
daag, daag, Zwarte Piet.
Dag, Sinterklaasje, daag, daag,
luister naar ons afscheidslied."
"Goodbye Sinterklaas, bye, bye,
bye, bye Black Pete.
Goodbye Sinterklaas, bye, bye,
hear our farewell song"

You can hear it sung, in dutch , here ( a rather nice voice & clear file): Dag Sinterklaasje

You can also hear more Sinterklaas songs from the site: Isidorusweb ... the site and songs are in dutch, but there's even the Pepernoten Samba!

The tradition of Sinterklaas is also celebrated in Belgium, however their day for gift giving is normally Dec. 6th. The festival of St. Nicholas has also been celebrated for centuries, (long before American Santa appeared ... see what we mean?!), in many other countries throughout Europe.

And to make it less confusing for 'the little ones' in the Netherlands, American Santa Claus is called the "kerstman" ( the Christmas man). There has been talk about 'Sinterklaas' becoming a dieing tradition in the Netherlands, but we don't think so and we certainly hope that NEVER happens. Wij houden van Sinterklaas! (We love Sinterklaas!)

Here's Finn as Zwarte Piet ... you knew he would.

© Judith Nijholt-Strong
Ouf! The things Finn does to get his pic on this blog!! (*Sacha rolling her eyes*)

To all our Dutch friends throughout the Netherlands and the world:
We wish you
een Gelukkig Sinterklaasfeest!
(a Happy Saint Nicholas feast).

Tot ziens,
Sacha (and Finn)


Anonymous said...

Now you see, everybody is Dutch, they don't know it though. ;-)

Nice story, fun to read.

Een héérlijk avondje jullie allen!

Charne said...

Wonderful Judy! I love your blog. It is so interesting, full of fun and good humour. I hope you'll be able to keep it up a good while, really I do!
I have not heard Daaaag Sinterklaasje daaag daaag ;-) in many many years!

I hope Sinterklaas brought you something special!


Finn & Sas said...

Hi René,
You know the saying, don't you?, "It ain't much, if it ain't Dutch!" en dat is waar! :o)
Thanks and I hope you enjoy what I write.

Thank you too. I'll do my best to keep this thing going... that is as long as "the cats" allow!

My "Sinterklaas" took me to Cologne (Keulen) today/night to pick out my pakjesavond "surprise". Leuk hoor!!!! :o)


paris parfait said...

What a lovely post, full of history, tradition, art, nice photos and humour. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for the wonderful site. Now I can share Sinterklaas story with my friend in Den Hague.
I will tell him what a good girl you are when he makes it to our house on the 25th.

Anonymous said...

Judy I hadn't seen your blog and came across it at WC. I'm mlelevier. I have ejoyed it tremendously, it is one of the best I have read.

Aussie said...

I am Australian from Dutch heritage and am editing my Oma's book that she wrote, based on her time before and after the war. Her reference to Black Pete, stumped me, until I googled and found your site. Thank you, now i will add an explanation for us Dutch Australians who had no idea of what Black Pete was.

J. Nijholt-Strong said...

Hi Aussie,

Your book sounds interesting and I wish you all the best with it! I'm glad my blog helped you figure out "Zwarte Piet" :o)

More reason for me to keep this blog up and running... cats or no cats.


sandy said...

Thanks for the story of St. Nick.


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