Wednesday, 5 December 2007


“A person who knows how to laugh at himself will never cease to be amused.” - Shirley Maclaine

December the 5th is a very special day in Holland (where I lived on and off for a few months). It is the day when the Feast of Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) is celebrated. This is an annual event which has been uniquely Dutch and Flemish for centuries. St. Nicholas' Feast Day, December 6th, is observed in most Roman Catholic and Orthodox countries. But it is only in the Low Countries, especially in the Netherlands, that the eve of his feast day (December 5th) is celebrated nationwide by young and old, Christian and non-Christian, and without any religious overtones.

Sinterklaas is always portrayed in the vestments of the bishop he once was, but his status as a saint has had little to do with the way the Dutch think of him. He is thought of as a benevolent old man, who is intent on been kind to children who have been good all year, by giving them all sorts of goodies as a reward. The eve of his feast day is observed by exchanging gifts and making good-natured fun of each other. Hence the corruption of “Sinterklaas” (= St Nicholas) into Santa Claus.

The legend of St. Nicholas is based on historical fact. Nicholas lived from 271 AD to December 6th, 342 AD (or 343). His 4th century tomb in the town of Myra, in Anatolia in present-day Turkey, has even been dug up by archaeologists. Nicholas was brought up as a devout Christian by his wealthy family. When his parents died in an epidemic, he distributed his wealth among the poor and became a priest. Later he became Archbishop of Myra, and it is from here that the fame of his good deeds began to spread across the Mediterranean.

Sailors especially venerated him, as they believed he had the power to calm the stormy seas. Young children were saved by the saint from the butcher's knife and he dropped dowries into the shoes of penniless maidens. Over time, St. Nicholas became the patron saint of sailors and merchants, but especially of children. After his death, the cult of St. Nicholas spread rapidly via southern Italy throughout the rest of the Mediterranean and eventually to coastal towns along the Atlantic and the North Sea.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, Holland built no fewer than 23 churches dedicated to St. Nicholas, many of which are still standing today. Amsterdam adopted St. Nicholas as its patron saint, and Rome decreed that December 6th, the anniversary of his death, should be his official Feast Day. St. Nicholas' strong influence in the Low Countries (heavily engaged in trade and navigation) was primarily due to his role as patron of sailors and merchants.

However, his fame as protector of children eventually became more important in these countries. In the 14th century, choir boys of St. Nicholas’ churches were given a gift of money and the day off on December 6th. Somewhat later, the pupils of convent schools would be rewarded or punished by a monk dressed up as the Good Bishop, with his long white beard, his red mantle and mitre holding his golden crosier just as he is still represented today.

All Dutch children know that Sinterklaas (the name is a corruption of Sint Nikolaas) lives in Spain. Exactly why he lives there, remains a mystery, but that is what all the old songs and nursery rhymes say. He spends most of the year recording the behaviour of all children in a big red book, while his helper, Black Peter ("Zwarte Piet") stocks up on presents for the next December 5th. In the first weeks of November, Sinterklaas gets on his white horse, Peter ("Piet") swings a huge sack full of gifts over his shoulder, and the three of them board a steamship headed for the Netherlands. Around mid-November they arrive in a harbour town (a different one every year) where they are formally greeted by the Mayor and a delegation of citizens. Their parade through town is watched live on television by the whole country and marks the beginning of the "Sinterklaas season".

The Dutch are busy shopping for, or more importantly, making presents. Tradition demands that all packages be camouflaged in some imaginative way, and that every gift be accompanied by a fitting poem. This is the essence of Sinterklaas: Lots of fun on a day when people are not only allowed, but expected, to make fun of each other in a friendly way. Children, parents, teachers, employers and employees, friends and co-workers tease each other and make fun of each others' habits and mannerisms. Another part of the fun is how presents are hidden or disguised. Recipients often have to go on a treasure hunt all over the house, aided by hints, to look for them. They must be prepared to dig their gifts out of the potato bin, to find them in jelly, in a glove filled with wet sand, in some crazy dummy or doll. Working hard for your presents and working even harder to think up other peoples' presents and get them ready is what the fun is all about.

The original poem accompanying each present is another old custom and a particularly challenging one. Here the author has a field day with his subject (the recipient of the gift). Foibles, love interests, embarrassing incidents, funny habits and well-kept secrets are all fair game. The recipient, who is the butt of the joke, has to open his/her package in public and read the poem aloud amid general hilarity. The real giver is supposed to remain anonymous because all presents technically come from Sinterklaas, and recipients say out aloud: “Thank you, Sinterklaas!”, even if they no longer believe in him.

Towards December 5th, St. Nicholas poems pop up everywhere in the Netherlands: In newspapers and magazines, at school, at work and in both Houses of Parliament. On the day of the 5th, most places of business close a bit earlier than normal. The Dutch head home to a table laden with the same traditional sweets and baked goods eaten for St. Nicholas as shown in the 17th-century paintings of the Old Masters. Large chocolate letters (the initial of each person present) serve as place settings. They share the table along with large gingerbread men and women known as "lovers". A basket filled with mysterious packages stands close by and scissors are at hand. Early in the evening sweets are eaten while those gathered take turns unwrapping their gifts and reading their poems out loud so that everyone can enjoy the impact of the surprise. The emphasis is on originality and personal effort rather than the commercial value of the gift, which is one reason why Sinterklaas is such a delightful event for young and old alike.

A Sinterklaas Poem for my 360 Friends

A funny day, a lovely day,
A zany day so full of play!
To friends, with wishes sung
A happy day to old and young.

As Sinterklaas comes by again,
With Zwarte Piet from Spain,
I wish to you his gifts does bring,
A toy, a book, …a golden ring!

We all enjoy the fun, the laughter
And lots of sweets to eat straight after.
There’s cake and chocolate lots of candy,
But as for me, I’d rather drink the brandy!

Seek high and low, go out and in
You’ll find your presents with a grin:
In sawdust smothered, under beds,
In socks, in wardrobes or in bread!

The kindly saint, he smiles and blesses,
The youngsters’ heads bends and caresses.
To all who’ve been good all year,
Old Sinterklass will give good cheer.

Happy Sinterklaas Day to all!

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