Friday, December 10, 2010

The Sint

The Netherlands has some pretty unusual holidays.

We have Queens Day, where everyone celebrates the Queen’s birthday by wearing orange and selling items in a flea market. We have Second Christmas, where everyone shops for furniture at Ikea.

And then there is Sinterklaas.

Much has been written about St. Nicholas.  Many cultures celebrate him calling him by names such as “Santa” or “Father Christmas”. But no one, no one, comes close to the imagination and creativity of the Dutch.

In Holland, Sinterklaas arrives well before his feast day, usually in mid November. Does he arrive by sleigh with elves from the North Pole? Don’t be ridiculous. He comes by boat, from sunny Spain, with his white horse, and his troop of Swarte Piets (read here, white Dutch men in black face).

Swarte Piet
 So starting in mid-November, Sinterklaas and his troop of “Black Peters” travel from house to house at night. The Piets jump to the rooftops and climb down the chimneys checking on the behavior of children in the house. They may leave a small treat in a child’s shoes left by the fire. Or, if a child is bad, they may leave a small bundle of sticks, a reminder of the beating that Piet may give that child if the offending behavior continues.

If a child should meet with the Sint at school or at a party, he will read from the “Big Book of all the Children in the World”. In that book, the Sint has a list of all behavior good and bad. The Sint will lean into the kids a little about what needs to be done differently and praise the child for what has been done well.

On the eve of December 6th, Swarte Piet comes to the door, rings the bell, and throws in a burlap bag of gifts and poems, along with a shower of ginger cookies.

If a child has been bad, so the legend goes, Swarte Piet will grab that child, throw him in the sack, beat him with a switch, and carry him off to sunny Spain. Personally, I wouldn’t mind the sunny Spain part, I haven’t seen the sun since August.

Gifts wrapped to identify the recipient
 I love this holiday for many reasons. First, in Dutch style, it is family oriented not gift oriented. A Sinterklaas celebration is a time to gather the family. Even families with older children have fun writing poems that tease the recipient. Gifts may be disguised as almost anything. If a person loves the guitar, the gift may come hidden as a giant paper-mache instrument. Or a gift may be hidden in the house with only clues given for the location. A meal is shared. Traditional songs are sung. Families with children of all ages look forward to this night all year.

The Piet Band
Second, it is NOT a politically correct holiday. In the United States, traditions are frequently so politically correct that they have all of the texture and diversity of oatmeal. The Dutch know that Swarte Piet is shocking to many people. But they value the tradition over political correctness.  This mischievous character is the Ying to St. Nicholas’ Yang. He is foolish and playful. At our church service on Sunday, a Piet amused himself while the priest spoke by walking along the altar rail like a tight rope. The children love him; and the children within the grown-ups love him as well.

Third, as David Sedaris wrote in his essay “Six to Eight Black Men”, the Dutch have the very best bedtime story.  I have personally had the privilege of telling my 10 year old son, “Well, The Sint is coming tonight. He might bring you presents, or he might throw you in a sack, beat you with a stick, and drag you off to Spain. You might want to pack a few things, just in case.”

A gift tagged with a poem for Jack
 So now we've moved on to decorating for Christmas. My three year old Audrey is thoroughly confused as to whom Santa might be versus Sinterklaas and if any Swarte Piets might be coming down the chimney to fill her stocking with candy. 

All is well, though. My children have learned a little about a completely different kind of holiday, cultural diversity, and bonding as a family over a few small gifts tagged with a poem from St. Nick.


  1. The Netherlands sure has some lovely holidays - I love the poem part of gift giving in Sinterklaas - when you write a funny poem describing the person for whom the gift is meant.

  2. I love your take on Zwarte Piet! Most people get so touchy about it to the point of ludicracy - Sinterklaas promotes slavery, Zwarte Piet is racist, yadah yadah yadah. I agree that we have taken the fun out of everything in the US. Though I like making Santa scandelous by saying he has a midget fettish! Hope you had a great Sinterklaas!

  3. Santa has a midget fettish? Now that is a a scandelous spin:) Merry Christmas!

  4. So well said! I can't wait to celebrate in Holland next year. We loved being a part of the Sinterklaas celebration with the Dutch school families here. Luckily many of my friends here were familiar with the story since they are fans of David Sedaris, but even they thought he was exaggerating! Lucy is finally convinced that no one will be taking her back to Spain, but is just as confused as Audrey about how Santa fits into all of this. Hope you are staying warm during this chilly Dutch December!

  5. Hi Sharon! Hope all is coming along well with your moving plans! Yes, sometimes fact is stranger than fiction. David Sedaris did not have to exaggerate. This kind of story writes itself. Stay warm, too. I hear you had snow! Merry Christmas!

  6. This was fun to read! I'm a Dutchie married to an American. We've lived in a number of countries, but our kids are American and it has been difficult to keep any of my Dutch traditions going in our family. Sinterklaas, unfortunately bit the dust...sigh.

    Glad you enjoyed the fun! I have great childhood memories of Sinterklaas.

  7. I once was in Amsterdam for Queen's day. It was amazing! I couldn't believe how everyone really got into the spirit of it and everyone was so happy and friendly!

    Rambles with Reese