In this Christmas season, I have to tell you about a typical Dutch tradition, which is St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas in Dutch (not to be confused with Santa Claus). Indeed, in the Netherlands, St. Nicholas is much more important than Christmas and Dutch people are very attached to it.
Explanations, therefore, on the origins of this feast, its folklore and its celebrations.
Originally, Saint Nicholas was a bishop born in the present-day Turkey at the end of the second century. Today he is considered the patron of children and schoolchildren (among others). He is portrayed as a nice old man with a long white beard and dressed in red (hence the confusion with Santa Claus). He also wears a bishop’s mitre and a long golden stick.
The present celebrations are nevertheless largely inspired by a story, Sinterklass and his servant, written by a Dutch teacher in 1845. We will come back to that a little further.
In the Netherlands, we start to celebrate Sinterklaas from mid-November, with the official arrival of St. Nicholas, on his steamboat from Spain. He is accompanied by his white horse Amerigo and his assistants, the Zwarte Pieten (literally “Black Pete”). They make the clowns, help Sinterklaas to distribute the gifts, and give treats to the children.
Every year, Sinterklaas arrives in a different city of the country, and is then greeted very officially by the mayor of the city. To tell you the importance of this for Dutch people, the ceremony is broadcast live on television. Until 5 December, the culmination of this feast, is aired on television Het Sinterklaas Journaal which traces the adventures of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieten on their boat.
On the evening of December 5, it is Pakjesavond (literally, “The evening of small packages”). This is when the presents are distributed. The children sing songs in honor of Sinterklaas, until someone knocks at the door. If they have been wise, they will discover a bag full of presents on the landing.
But Pakjesavond is not only for children. In fact, according to the tradition, before the feast, we organize a random draw to give everyone the name of a person to whom to offer a gift. As Dutch people are very pragmatic, we sometimes write on the piece of paper what one would like to receive, and an average budget is determined in advance. The gifts are then skilfully packaged, often reproducing an object representing the person. Paper-mache enthusiasts will be happy! The presents come with a poem, often humorous, which mocks the recipient’s faults. It is read aloud in front of the whole family.
Finally, St. Nicholas would not be St. Nicholas without its typical treats, like the chocolate letters, or the kruidnoten, small biscuits that look like Speculoos (Speculaas in Dutch), sometimes coated with chocolate.
Since 2013, controversy over Zwarte Pieten
The origins of Zwarte Piet
According to the original legend of Saint Nicholas, Zwarte Piet represented the figure of Black Peter, who was punishing children who had not been wise during the year. He was dressed in black (hence his name), had a swift and distributed, not treats, but coal.
The character of modern Zwarte Piet was introduced in the narrative of Jan Schenkman, Sinterklaas and his servant, mentioned above. In the story, Sinterklaas is clearly accompanied by a black servant from Africa.
More recently, they tried to propose a more sweetened version of the storyby introducing other Zwarte Piet, who were now the nice assistants of Sinterklaas, and stating that their face painted black was not due to any origin, but to the fact that they pass through the chimney to distribute the presents.
So how do you explain this: the big red lips, the frizzy hair wig and the earrings?
A question that rallies national opinion and up to the UN
In 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) received numerous complaints that denounced the character’s racist sign. The debate takes on a national scale when the party for Freedom (far-right), led by the sulphurous Geert Wilders lays down a bill to sanctuarize the black color of the character. The project is nonetheless rejected. On the other hand, in the Netherlands, many Dutch people came together to support the figure of Zwarte Piet, coming out of the story of the chimney, or saying that we should let the children enjoy the feast.
Since then, almost every year, an event is organized to protest against the character’s racist sign. The government got itself off the hook by letting each province decide whether they want to keep the character as it is. They let the municipalities decide, who even let the companies that interpret the characters decide. I notice, however, that this year, at the Amsterdam Parade, the Zwartes Pieten did not wear black-faced or curly wigs, but had only a slightly blackened face, as if, indeed, they had passed through the chimney.
So, want to come to the Netherlands to celebrate St. Nicholas? What do you think of Zwarte Pieten? Tell me all that in commentary!
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