November 12, 2011

UnDutchable : Sinterklaas

Today I’m joining about 300,000 other people along the streets of Amsterdam in hope of catching a glimpse of the most famous Dutch superhero: Sinterklaas. This post is extensive but I need to explain this Dutch phenomenon properly! Also, my 6 year old cousin Guusje, a huge Sinterklaas fan, would kill me if I missed anything out.

Not to be confused with Santa Claus, this character had once been a very real person. A bishop in fact, born around 280 AD in the village of Myra, Turkey: then part of the Roman Empire. A young religion called Christianity spread through the region and Nicolaas became one of its most loyal messengers. He soon built a reputation for himself as a miracle worker who could allegedly be in many places at the same time. One of the legends surrounding Nicholaas tells of a man unable to afford a dowry for his three daughters. No dowry meant no marriage in those days and the sisters seemed doomed for a life of prostitution. When the bishop heard of the looming catastrophe, he sneaked into their house at night and left enough money to ensure no pimp would ever get to those girls.

As Christianity conquered Europe, the stories of Nicholaas’ selfless behaviour made him a Saint. He was widely worshipped until the Reformation came along and protestants put a stop to veneration. In most countries the celebrations on Nicolaas’ dying day in December vanished or were greatly reduced. But the Dutch kept the tradition alive, even after the religious significance disappeared. Sinterklaas (his name evolved as he was no longer considered a Saint under protestant rule) became a children’s myth. If they behaved well, this mysterious figure would buy them presents and if they were bad they would receive a lump of coal.

The modern day Sinterklaas celebrations consist of many elements:

1.) This event is broadcast live on national television and marks the end of Sinterklaas’ long boat journey from Spain. Between now and December 5th young Dutchies all over will be putting carrots in their shoes (for his horses) and a drawing for Sinterklaas himself in the hope that he’ll stop  by and exchange this for chocolates and sweets. 

2.) Teenagers and adults celebrate Sinterklaas by buying gifts for each other, wrapping them in clever and spectacular packages and coming up with funny poems about the receiver. This day is a bigger deal than the Anglo-Saxon idea of Christmas, which is also celebrated here but not as much with gifts. Sinterklaas is a real-life fairytale, celebrating children’s ability to believe the unbelievable.

3.) ‘Zwarte Pieten’ – Black Petes
In 1850, Jan Schenkman released a book which defined the modern day Sinterklaas celebrations and they haven’t changed much since. He added several elements to the story and ‘Zwarte Piet”, the servant, remains one of the most important. They help Sinterklaas deliver all of the gifts and he even used to walk with a whip for naughty children. If you behave really badly, he’ll put you in his sack and take you back to Spain. He’s generally a jolly fellow who hands out candy and does silly dances. There are of course underlying racists implications and when this character was introduced in 1850 slavery was still commonplace in Dutch colonies. No one thought much of him at first. It wasn’t until the 1960’s when the first immigrants were arriving in the Netherlands that people started to voice their concerns. The debate intensified in the 1980’s. Folks came up with well-intentioned but often silly alternatives. Suddenly, some Pieten (almost always played by whites) were coloured blue instead of black. Unfortunately, that only freaked out the children. Remember, this was well before the movie Avatar, when the idea of blue people was still ridiculous.

Coming from the Caribbean, it’s difficult to explain why Sinterklaas has a helper such as Zwarte Piet. I don’t know myself but most people here just don’t think of Zwarte Piet as a racist symbol. When they apply the make-up and put on their costumes, they’re out to have a good time and entertain the kids. There is no malevolence in it at all. But maybe, just maybe, it’s time to realize that, despite their good intentions, a black servant sends the wrong message to minorities in a multicultural society.

 4.) Candy & chocolate and lots of it! Kruidnoten (bitesize cinnamon cookies) and Chocolate letters (usually the first letter of your name) are just some of the tasty treats you can find during this time and it’s really difficult not to eat them everyday!

Still a bit confused by it all? So am I! We never really celebrated Sinterklaas in Barbados for obvious reasons so this is my first time really taking part in it. I got most of this info&images from “Amsterdam” magazine (a great freebie I stumbled across and my new favourite read!) but there's still lots to figure out about Sinterklaas over the coming weeks. 


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