Thursday, February 22

On Sinterklaas

10 December 2005

We have just experienced our first Sinterklaas holiday. This is the children’s celebration which commences with the arrival of Sinterklaas in November. Perhaps you have heard of this before, or know about the Sint from some other source, but please bear with as I share a little Dutch culture lesson.
Sinterklaas lives in the South of Spain which is not bad digs considering our North American Santa Claus spends his year in the North Pole? Please. If you had your choice between sunny beaches and blue skies, or frozen barren waste land; where would you be? The Sint travels to Holland by steamboat on or about 12 November each year. He brings along his many helpers, the Zwarte Pieten and also his regal white horse. He comes to Holland to celebrate his birthday with the children here, by bringing them gifts and goodies. The legend tells us that his birthday is on the 6th of December. His arrival is an immensely big deal, complete with live television coverage throughout the country. Once he arrives he keeps himself very busy appearing at the shops, at parties, at school celebrations and riding his horse in the parades in each city here in Holland. Truly the man is MAGIC to be able to get it all done in the short time he is here! In truth, I can’t even begin to explain the magic of the season. I will tell you that I am confident that I saw the real, actual, bonafide Sinterklaas in Leiden as he rode his noble steed down the street in the Sinterklaas parade. That is how magic the season can be.
In addition to his celebrity appearances he also rides the rooftops at night and he and his Piets look to see if the children have left their shoes near a fireplace or a window. If shoes are present, it is the job of Zwarte Piet to sneak in and leave a small gift or some chocolate inside a shoe. Usually the children have left a carrot or some straw for the Sint's horse in exchange for a surprise in their shoe. Or sometimes a note, or drawing for Sinterklaas.
If you are naughty it is said that Piet can leave a "switch" in your shoe for some good old fashioned bottom spanking. And if you are really naughty, Zwarte Piet may just scoop you up in his sack and take you away from your family to the South of Spain. (Frankly, this doesn't sound like such a bad deal!) Zwarte Piet is a colorful character dressed in velvet and a feathered cap. He is a fun loving helper, and you find Piets throughout the season walking through the streets and shops sharing gifts with children and throwing out treats.
There are also many songs specific to the season and these you also hear piped through the shops and being sung by children every day.
And then we arrive at Sinterklaas eve, or Pakjesavond on the 5th of December which is the night before the Sint’s birthday. Usually families have a party of sorts and at some point in the evening there will be loud knock upon the door. When it is answered one of the Pieten will have dropped off a sack of presents for the children.
For our celebration that evening, we invited some of Don’s colleagues over for dinner to celebrate with us, as none of them have kids to take part in the Dutch tradition. Around 7:00 there was a knock on the door, and when Emma opened it there was no one there but only a big brown sack filled with gifts for everyone in the house. Even our guests had a little something as a surprise inside. Which Emma thought was incredibly fortuitous. ("Sinterklaas is so smart, Mom, How did he know that everyone would be here?") It was delightful to celebrate this Dutch holiday tradition.... The kids being thrilled of course that they get to celebrate with TWO bearded men dressed in red this year.

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