Its’s that time of year again. Sinterklaas is back in town.
Non Dutchies should under no circumstances confuse Sinterklaas with Santa Claus. The two may share a few physical resemblances for sure: they both favour the snow white beard and red suit look, but while Santa is a cuddly (fat), symbol (who started off as a Coca Cola marketing tool) and is happy to restrict himself conversationally to little more than the occasional ho-ho-ho, the Dutch Sinterklaas is generally trimmer, was a real Bishop and is known to spout poetry and inspire others to write it. Also whereas Santa has elves and reindeer, Sinterklaas has Zwarte Piets and Amerigo.
So it goes something like this.
Around the end of November, the Holy Man as he’s known, sails into most towns, cities and villages in The Netherlands, greeted by ecstatic children and enthusiastic parents. He comes by boat, because he’s sailed here from Spain. In Amsterdam, a whole day is organized to celebrate his arrival - the mayor himself welcomes him at the port, and then the Sint, mounted on his trusty white horse, Amerigo, leads a giant parade throughout the city.
And because he’s just sailed here from Spain, it’s only natural that he has with him, several “Moorish” helpers. These are the Zwarte Pieten - Black Peters - dressed in colourful velvet knickerbocker sets that must have been all the rage in medieval times. He rides through the town or city on his white horse, holding his Bishop’s crook, while the Zwarte Pieten throw sweets and small spice cookies into the cheering crowds. The Sint is beloved here to an extent that can baffle the foreign visitor, and children and adults sing traditional Sinterklaas songs as he rides past, cheering and desperately trying to get his attention - its a great honour if you manage to shake his hand, or even to pat Amerigo.
But it’s also not unusual to see small children bursting into tears at the sight of the Zwarte Pieten. Before the age of PC, these guys were the bogeymen who had the authority to beat or kidnap naughty children; but these days they’re only really licenced to distribute sweets, and get up to all sorts of antics on unicycles or stilts, or join in the parade in brass bands and floats.
Once the Sint officially arrives in Holland, every night kids around the country leave their shoes hopefully by the hearth, occasionally accompanied by a letter for the Sint (usually including a present wishlist) or a carrot for his horse. Imagine the thrill in the morning then, of finding a small present in your shoe while the letter of carrot have mysteriously disappeared.
On the night of 5 December, families gather to read funny, sometimes mildly insulting poems they’ve written for each other. Then suddenly there will be a loud rap on the door. When my two girls were little, this was the moment they both dived under a blanket on the sofa, refusing under any condition to come out to see the Sint delivering their presents. But I would go outside to pick up the sack he’d left, calling out to the kids, “come quickly, you may just catch the sight of Amerigo galloping off with the Sint as he goes to the next house.” Eventually they could be co-erced to take a peep around the door, but of course it was always too late to get that glimpse. But their disappointment was allayed at the sight of a full sack of presents.
The Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas has not escaped the kind of commercialism that’s made a mockery of Christmas, at least in the western world. The shops are in full gear with Sinterklaas sales already in October, and for about a week or two, the Sint is ubiquitous, making appearances in schools, offices, at gas stations, and in shopping centres. Chocolate letters are the usual gift and kids with well placed relatives can stock up on enough of these things to keep them in chocolate for months.
But there’s still something very special about this festival here. For many Dutch people, it s still more important than Christmas, and the children’s excitement is contagious. But for the working mother, it can be an exhauting time - there are “surprises” to be bought not just for kids to take to their school, but also to their gym lessons, their music lessons, their sports trainings. And after the day shift at the office and the evening shift at home, the comatose parent has to still remember that the kids will be expecting something in their shoe the next morning. So woe betide the parent who hasn’t got themselves organized into making sure that the Sint hasn’t forgotten to visit your kids in his busy rounds that day.
But still, its a small price to pay for the fun of it all. Radio Netherlands had a visit from Sinterklaas today. I was in a meeting but we called a short break to go downstairs to join dozens of our colleagues to see the Sint reading the poem he’d composed for us. As we were filing out to get back to the meeting a Zwarte Piete handed me a giant chocolate letter. It’s sitting on my desk as I type this, but I’m trying to ignore it calling out to me.