Dutch Santa & his helpers

Dutch Santa & his helpers

I was startled to see young boys with their faces blackened but resplendent in colourful old traditional attire here and there in Wageningen, a small university town in Holland, in November. The Christmas festivities seemed to be in full swing already.

One could see  decorated Christmas trees on shopping streets and inside hotels. At nights, shops here came alive with decorative lights to compensate for the gloomy weather. Some evenings, to our delight, we heard Christmas music being played on carillon (a musical instrument, part of Holland’s cultural heritage) at important squares.

School children were led by their teachers to spaces where Christmas cribs with baby Jesus were laid out. This was a common sight in cities like Amsterdam and Leiden. But the presence of young boys and girls with blackened faces, who entertained children and handed out traditional sweets, was unusual.

A Christmas apart
I enquired about the Christmas celebrations in Holland. The young and old look forward to December 5 every year. This is when Sinterklaas (St Nicholas) arrives by a boat, supposedly from Spain, and lands in Holland at the quayside of old Dutch towns bearing loads of gifts for children. Even though St Nicholas Day is on December 6, connected events take place on the 5th.  Sinterklaas arrives in the morning — an impressive figure with long white hair, flowing beard, and resplendent in red Bishop’s robes. (Sinterklaas and Santa Claus are not the same; their apparent physical similarity is misleading.)

His helpers accompany him, a Dutch boy or girl with a blackened face, dressed in renaissance attire. Named Zwarte Piet or Black Peter, his history is an old one. By early 20th century, the tradition of having them as friendly helpers of Sinterklaas had been firmly established. Earlier, Zwarte Piet’s sole job was to record children’s good and bad behaviour. Naughty children were told that if their behaviour was not up to the mark, they would be carried away for a year to Spain in a sack for lessons in behaviour by Zwarte Piet.

Zwarte Piet is supposed to symbolise a Moor, and that has attracted protests from naturalised citizens with African ancestry and the more liberal-minded natives of Holland. The figure seems to have emerged in the 19th century from an older, pre-Christian tradition. In it, Sinterklass’s helper was a devilish character who listened at chimneys and told Sinterklass which children were well-behaved and had earned presents and which were ill-behaved and needed to be punished.

For obvious reasons of its associations with the Dutch colonial period, not to mention slavery, many people now raise their voice against the notion of Sinterklass having helpers. An alternative link between the black colour and the older tradition could be the fact that helpers eavesdropping near chimneys could get their faces blackened with soot if they went down.

On December 5, as Sinterklaas comes ashore, he is welcomed by the ringing of all the local church bells, and a crowd of people who brave the winter weather. Then he leads a grand procession riding on a white horse through the town. When in Amsterdam, Sinterklaas also meets the Queen. All the children keep their shoes or clogs by the fireside and stuff them with hay and carrots, meant as fodder for Sinterklaas’s horse.

The story told to the children is that Sinterklaas goes riding on the roofs of the houses and sends his helper Zwarte Piet to go down the chimney to keep gifts and sweets inside the shoes. Unlike St Nicholas Day, Christmas day is a quiet family affair in Holland with perhaps a Christmas tree at home and a visit to the church. On Christmas Eve, children look forward to a visit from Kerstman (Santa Claus), who is supposed to come from Lapland with more gifts.

Games & gifts
My friend remembered how when her children were young, they went to parties that were held in every city and town in Holland on St Nicholas Day with special treasure hunt games, with clues that were provided in the form of riddles and poems. It seems that in schools there is a delightful custom on St Nicholas Day, which must be particularly exciting for small children. They put chits with all the students’ names in a hat and everyone gets to pick a chit. But it must be that of another person. The person who picks the chit must give a surprise gift to the person whose name is on the chit — but without revealing his or her own identity. The identity has to be guessed from clues in a poem that accompanies the gift.

Every town in Holland has a few Sinterklaas helpers who are dressed exactly like Sinterklaas and are accompanied by their own Zwarte Piet. The Zwarte Piet I came across readily posed for my camera and gave us some traditional sweets. Among them were biscuits like the chewy Pepernoten (made from cinnamon and spices), Kruidnoten (a harder variety of Pepernoten) and Strooigoed (a mix of confections). We had the opportunity of eating some at the hotel we stayed in, and the shops we visited. They were delicious. As we were leaving, our Dutch friends wished us Prettige Kerstfeest (Happy Christmas) and Gelukkig Nieuwjaar (Happy New Year), and we promised ourselves that we would visit Holland again —but in a warmer season.


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