December 6th in the Christian Calendar marks the Feast of Saint Nicholas, a 4th century saint and bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. The modern legend of Santa Claus traces its lineage back to this obscure saint who had a reputation for gift-giving, leaving coins in the shoes of the poor and destitute. He also became known as the patron saint of children, and myths and stories formed around him are told to children to this day.
I have a particular fondness for the Saint Nicholas tradition. In Holland, where I was born and I spent the first 12 years of my life, Saint Nicholas is known as Sinterklaas. On the eve December 5th, families in Holland gather for the distribution of gifts. As children we would gather with hard-to-contain excitement as we waited for the loud knock on the door. When it would finally come, we would rush to the door and outside, to our delight, would lay a bag with presents. Some years there would be a loud knock, followed by the door rushing open and through it would come Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), in colourful Medieval attire and a black face. Zwarte Piet is Sinterklaas’ helper who helps deliver presents to all the homes where Sinterklaas could not personally visit. He would come in strewing Pepernoten (tiny spiced cookies) all around the room. We would scream with fear and fascination. For we knew that Zwarte Piet not only would bring candy and presents. If you had been exceptionally bad in the year, he could take you away in the same bag that he had brought the presents!
I have in my possession a granulated 8mm film of the day that I was dressed up in a Zwarte Piet costume. I was only 10 years old and it was my role to knock on the door and jump into the living room tossing Pepernoten, while my brother, only 5 years old, looked on. There is a priceless shot of my little brother, with wide eyed terror, looking up at me and mouthing ‘Hallo, Zwarte Piet’. I think he knew it was me, but he played the game just as everyone else did.
The eve of December 5th was the culmination of the Sinterklaas festival. Earlier, half way through November, was the beginning of the Festival as Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Piet helpers arrived by steamboat from far off Spain. I remember being glued to the television as Sinterklaas’ arrival was broadcast to the country. Thousands of children and parents would be seen gathered on the docks in Amsterdam. Television anchors would give regular updates as to where Sinterklaas steamboat was sighted, and how much longer he would be to arrive. Children would be interviewed about whether they had been good or bad this year, and whether they expected presents or lumps of coal. Choirs would be singing traditional Sinterklaas songs and everyone would sing along.
Then, finally, the steamboat would be sighted coming down the harbor. Before long we would see a close-up of Sinterklaas standing in regal splendor on the deck. Dressed in a red bishop’s cassock with a tall miter on his head, he would wave and smile, his long white beard sparkling with beneficence. His Zwarte Piet helpers would hang from the rigging and wave from the crow’s-nest. This was a very exciting to us kids!
Then came the moment when Sinterklaas and his helpers would disembark, stepping onto the dock. His white stallion would be waiting for him and we would watch him get onto his horse as children cheered. We would watch Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Piet helpers parade down the streets of Amsterdam, crossing the canal bridges, weaving their way through the crowds of kids.
Sinterklaas 2That evening we would place one of our shoes next to the fireplace or the window. Sinterklaas would come that night, and all the nights leading up to December 5th, and leave gifts of candy or a small toy. Sinterklaas’ helpers would do all the work, coming down the chimneys and leaving the presents in the shoes (or lumps of coal if you had been bad), while Sinterklaas waited on the roof on his white stallion. Sometimes, if you listened carefully, you could hear the hoofs of the stallion on the roof. They say that the faces of the Zwarte Piet helpers got black from the soot, going up and down the chimneys.
In Holland, this festival is not religious. Unlike in North America, Sinterklaas and the tradition of gift-giving is not confused with the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ. In North America, and now all over the world, the traditional religious celebration of Christmas is mixed in with the gift-giving tradition. Furthermore, this has become a consumer frenzy, in which the Christian religious celebration has been co-opted by the market place for commercial and secular purposes. I like the clear separation practiced in Holland, allowing Christmas to be a dignified religious celebration, and allowing the secular culture to express the values of gift-giving and celebration around the children’s festival of Sinterklaas.
Originally appeared in the Times Colonist on December 5, 2012.