Midnight Rambler Explains Dutch Stuff:

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Beata Maria, je clame que mon âme est pure...
Yeah, but there's a difference between a translation and a loanword, hon wink
Auf dem Lande, auf dem Meer
lauert das Verderben;
die Kreatur muss sterben!
27 MidnightRambler3rd Dec 2012 05:24:40 PM from Germania Inferior
Beata Maria, je clame que mon âme est pure...
It's...

MR:EDS!

Ep. 6 – Presents and Poems and Carols, Oh My! Sinterklaas

Saint Nicholas has arrived in the Netherlands – in fact, his big day is tomorrow already - so I thought I'd fill you in on the many colourful ways in which we honour our favourite saint. In many ways, his name day (officially the 6th of December, but for some reason we celebrate it on the 5th) is to us what Christmas is to many other countries: it has its own special songs and candy; people buy each other presents; small children are told the presents come from an old man with a long white beard; and said old man is used as a cynical metaphor for 'free stuff out of nowhere' in political discussions.

One big difference, however, is that there's absolutely nothing religious about the whole affair. Saints' name days are just about the most Catholic thing imaginable, so they weren't very popular in our traditionally Protestant-dominated country; hence, Saint Nicholas's Day was stripped of its religious connotations. It's purely about presents and candy now. (Oh, and we still celebrate Christmas on the 25th like everyone else. We just don't give each other presents at Christmas.)

Anyway, Sinterklaas (shortened version of Sint Nicolaas) is widely respected and loved. To illustrate: one of his many nicknames is de goedheiligman ('the good holy man'), and the 5th of December is often referred to as het heerlijk avondje ( 'the delightful evening').

For most of the year, Sinterklaas lives in a large castle in Spain with his many Zwarte Pieten ('Black Peters') - who are to him what the elves are to his colleague on the North Pole - and his white horse Amerigo. However, halfway through November, he and the Pieten sail north to prepare for their big day!

But we'll get to that – first, a word on the Zwarte Pieten. These servants of Sinterklaas are black, and they're usually played by white people in blackface. Hardly anyone in the Netherlands bats an eyelash at this. Before you get too shocked, note that the Pieten have never referred to black slavery – the original Zwarte Piet (he was on his own at first) was conceived as a voluntary manservant to Sinterklaas. Over time, the one Piet became many Pieten, who help Sinterklaas wrap, transport and deliver presents to all Dutch children.

By the way, here is a picture of Sinterklaas with two of his Zwarte Pieten. Fancy, no?

The run-up to Sinterklaas starts towards the end of October. Sinterklaas-themed advertisements and decorations appear, and special Sinterklaas candy is sold in the shops. The quintessential Sinterklaas delicacy is the kruidnoot, which is often confused with the pepernoot; both are consumed in large quantities. Marzipan (marsepein) is also associated with Sinterklaas for some reason. And then there are chocolate letters, and a hundred other types of candy. It's a delicious holiday!

Sometime mid-November, Sinterklaas himself arrives. With Amerigo and all the Zwarte Pieten, he comes sailing to our country on a big steamship called the Pakjesboot ('Ship of Presents'). They're greeted by a brass band playing Sinterklaas carols, the mayor (a different town is selected to host the Grand Arrival each year) and of course hundreds of enthusiastic young children. The whole ceremony is broadcast live on national television; it looks like this.

There are a lot of Sinterklaas carols celebrating the goedheiligman and his Pieten; a loosely-defined "Sinterklaas canon" of about 20 to 25 songs is considered general knowledge in the Netherlands. Some of the most popular carols are Zie ginds komt de stoomboot ('See, Here Comes the Steamship'), Op de hoge, hoge daken ('On the High, High Rooftops') and Hij komt, hij komt ('He's Coming, He's Coming').

Once Sinterklaas and his Pieten are in the country, they set up HQ in the Pietenhuis ('House of Pieten' – its location is a carefully guarded secret), and get down to business. Lots of Pieten start appearing on the streets, visiting primary schools and day-care centres, throwing candy around and generally spreading joy. In many homes, the tradition of schoen zetten ('putting up a shoe') begins.

What this means is that children put their shoes (one shoe per child) at the fireplace – or, if the house doesn't have a fireplace, next to the radiator or wherever. The whole family gathers around and sings Sinterklaas carols together; the shoes are then left there for the night, together with some water and a carrot for the horse Amerigo.

In the night, Sinterklaas rides his horse over the rooftops to deliver presents. The Pieten climb over the rooftops with him, throwing presents down chimneys. For homes where this method is impractical, Sinterklaas has a master key that opens every door in the Netherlands. When the children wake up the next day, each shoe is filled with candy and a small present.

The larger presents are reserved for the 5th of December itself, pakjesavond ('Presents Night'). This is celebrated with relatives; other Sinterklaas celebrations, e.g. with your class, your sports team, your fraternity or just a random group of friends, are usually scheduled a few days before pakjesavond itself.

The details of present-giving tradition vary from group to group. In some families, everyone buys a present for everyone else; others have everyone buy a present for one other person, determined by drawing lots. Another point of divergence is whether or not to include surprises (borrowed from the French; pronounced 'sur-PREE-zuhs'). A surprise is a work of handicraft, almost always involving lots of papier-mâché, in which the present is hidden. Their appearance is usually based on the interests of the person they were made for (e.g. someone who plays the saxophone gets a papier-mâché saxophone, someone who plays Minecraft all day gets a papier-mâché Creeper *, et cetera). If you're celebrating Sinterklaas without surprises, the presents are simply wrapped. Most shops have special Sinterklaas-themed wrapping paper on hand for this purpose.

However, there's one thing everyone agrees on: a Sinterklaas present * is not complete without a poem.

On pakjesavond, each present comes with a poem in simple AABB verse, to be read aloud by the recipient before unwrapping the present (or opening the surprise). These poems (written by the person who bought the pre— I mean, by Sinterklaas and his Pieten, of course) can range from 2 to 30+ lines, from painfully forced rhymes to expertly crafted ones, and from generic and boring to hilarious and witty. They tend to contain references to the recipient's hobbies, lifestyle and personality, as well as recent events in their life. Also, hints as to what the present is are dropped in the poem, from very subtle to very explicit and obvious. If you ask me, these poems are definitely the most fun part of the Sinterklaas tradition.

So, the general process of pakjesavond goes like this: everyone meets up at someone's house and has a chat; then a huge stash of presents is "suddenly" found somewhere in the house. The presents are hauled into the living room and handed out in no particular order – usually, a random present is taken from the stash and given to the person it's for. He or she reads the poem, unwraps the present, and picks another present from the stash, giving it to its intended recipient, and so on. When everything has been unwrapped, everyone says goodbye and goes home with their presents.

There used to be a disciplinary aspect to Sinterklaas as well, but nowadays it's not taken all that seriously. You see, Sinterklaas has the Grote Boek (Big Book), in which he writes down what he hears from his Pieten about each Dutch child's behaviour throughout the year. When the heerlijk avondje approaches, he checks in his book whether you've been good or bad. If you've been bad, he might not give you any presents at all, but rather a roe * - a bunch of sticks bound together for your parents to spank you with. Thus Zwarte Pieten are sometimes depicted carrying a roe, and many Sinterklaas carols mention that 'good kids get candy, bad kids get the roe!' In extreme cases, you could be taken back to Spain in one of the big jute sacks the Pieten use for carrying presents and candy.

However, it seems Sinterklaas has gone soft in old age. Everyone gets presents these days, and few parents even mention the roe to their children at all, let alone the idea of being taken to Spain in the sack.

Anyway, now you know all about the wonderful holiday of Sinterklaas! Come celebrate with us and be sure to say goodbye to Sint and his Pieten when they sail back to Spain on the 6th.

edited 6th Dec '12 2:25:50 PM by MidnightRambler

Auf dem Lande, auf dem Meer
lauert das Verderben;
die Kreatur muss sterben!
I actually got into a pretty severe argument with an online friend of mine over Zwarte Piet recently because of the Values Dissonance. She was pro, I was anti ...
29 ohsointocats3rd Dec 2012 06:23:20 PM from The Sand Wastes , Relationship Status: Showing feelings of an almost human nature
Do you know anything about Dutch customs, as in the kind you have to go through to get into the country? I'm going to the Netherlands in January and will be there through June, and I just bought a lot of fancy tea that I'd like to bring if I can.
30 MidnightRambler4th Dec 2012 03:38:11 AM from Germania Inferior
Beata Maria, je clame que mon âme est pure...
Auf dem Lande, auf dem Meer
lauert das Verderben;
die Kreatur muss sterben!
31 Euodiachloris4th Dec 2012 04:25:03 AM from England (Oop North) , Relationship Status: Is that a kind of food?
Euo will do!
The most important thing to know about Dutch Customs: "don't get lost in Schiphol". wink However, that splatted octopus of an airport (it kind of looks like that from above) is a cake-walk in comparison to the rabbit warren of Heathrow. tongue

edited 4th Dec '12 4:25:37 AM by Euodiachloris

"When all else failed, she tried being reasonable." ~ Pratchett, Johnny and the Bomb
32 Greenmantle4th Dec 2012 04:43:41 AM from Greater Wessex , Relationship Status: I know
Phantom of the Spey
And anyway, Midnight, what is travel like in the Netherlands?

The image over the other side of the North Sea is that the The Trains Run On Time and everyone rides bikes — it's obviously not the reality*, so what is travel actually like?
"It's been a long, hard road but you must carry on"
33 MidnightRambler4th Dec 2012 05:25:58 AM from Germania Inferior
Beata Maria, je clame que mon âme est pure...
I laughed out loud at the idea of The Trains Running On Time here. The railway system is one of our favourite things to complain about. If you look at the actual delays figures it's not so bad, really, but there are two things the Dutch Railways are especially notorious for:

  • Extreme vulnerability to bad weather. If it's too windy, too hot, too cold... everything goes haywire. The railways have taken to switching to the "winter timetable" (i.e. reduced service) at the slightest chance of snow or frost, in order to prevent the chaos that ensues * when trying to run full service in wintry weather.
  • Terrible communication with passengers. When a train is delayed, a line is blocked, or other special circumstances arise, the information and advice given to travellers is usually late, incomplete, confusing or even outright contradictory.

As for everyone riding bikes, that's mostly accurate. Our flat landscape, high population density and temperate climate make the Netherlands ideal bicycle country. We use our trusted iron horses for most trips under, say, 6-7 km: getting to school or college, going shopping, visiting friends in town... In other words, they're seen primarily as a practical mode of transport, rather than as objects for leisure or sports like in other countries. Their design reflects this; the average Dutch "utility bicycle" looks very different from an ATB or a racing bike. (For example, this is what I ride).

In rural areas, bicycles are somewhat less popular, since their relatively low population density means things are generally a lot farther apart than in the cities.

We also use cars a lot. Our motorway network is one of the densest * in the world, and like you said, the roads are a lot better than in Belgium. In fact, terrible roads are among the many things our southern neighbours are notorious for among Dutch people.

In many Dutch inner cities, however, getting around by car is an absolute nightmare - the central districts of towns like Amsterdam, Leiden, Delft and Groningen are mazes of narrow passages, one-way streets and pedestrian zones. They're mostly kept that way deliberately to discourage the use of cars. The exception is Rotterdam, which had its city centre bombed during World War II - after the war, it had to be redesigned almost from scratch, leading to a very "open", car-friendly inner city with wide streets, in contrast to the cramped historical centres of many other towns.

Auf dem Lande, auf dem Meer
lauert das Verderben;
die Kreatur muss sterben!
34 AceofSpades4th Dec 2012 11:52:29 AM from The Wild Blue Yonder , Relationship Status: Yes, I'm alone, but I'm alone and free
@Guest 1001: Well, I believe MR already pointed out the most salient fact here; Values Dissonance. They're in blackface because that's how the character has always been presented. This precedes and is separate from issues like slavery and how blackface happened here in America. It's a completely different cultural context, and while I don't blame any American at all for seeing it as a racist caricature, I'm not going to expect the Dutch to stop doing a cultural tradition because it means something else entirely different here.
35 Kayeka4th Dec 2012 12:10:27 PM from Amsterdam , Relationship Status: Brony
World's biggest wannabe
My house mate plays Zwarte Piet this year. I jokingly told him not to run into any Americans before they get a heart attack and sue him for endangering their health.

I'm very much an ass, so sorry about that.

edited 4th Dec '12 12:10:39 PM by Kayeka

Friend code for fun, profit, and smash: 0130-1781-6865
36 MidnightRambler4th Dec 2012 02:13:11 PM from Germania Inferior
Beata Maria, je clame que mon âme est pure...
The Values Dissonance with America and Britain on this point can be explained by a number of factors. First of all, the percentage of black people (most of them of Surinamese descent) in the Dutch population is comparatively tiny, and if there are racial tensions in our country, they're mostly between whites and Arabs, not between whites and blacks. Also, we don't have the kind of explosive racial history the US (slavery, Jim Crow laws, KKK, civil rights movement...) and the UK (racist police, race riots, National Front/BNP...) have. All the nasty slavery stuff happened far away in the colonies.
Auf dem Lande, auf dem Meer
lauert das Verderben;
die Kreatur muss sterben!
37 Karalora4th Dec 2012 02:31:28 PM from San Fernando Valley, CA , Relationship Status: In another castle
Manliest Person on Skype
I think the real acid test regarding the Zwarte Pieten tradition is: What do those few black Dutch people think of it? Particularly those who grew up there and thus aren't importing their own Values Dissonance to the situation. They're the only ones who can really say whether it's offensive to them.

edited 4th Dec '12 4:17:56 PM by Karalora

38 MidnightRambler4th Dec 2012 02:51:30 PM from Germania Inferior
Beata Maria, je clame que mon âme est pure...
Eh, last year there were a few black men who mounted a protest, saying that the Zwarte Pieten tradition was racist. It wasn't very widely supported though - as far as I recall, it was just two guys with a sign. Also, there are a few white people who say similar things; criticising the Zwarte Pieten doesn't seem to be correlated with being black. Most of these critics, black and white, are dismissed as Political Correctness Gone Mad.

I've never heard of the Surinamese community taking offence at the Zwarte Pieten in large numbers.

edited 4th Dec '12 3:01:06 PM by MidnightRambler

Auf dem Lande, auf dem Meer
lauert das Verderben;
die Kreatur muss sterben!
39 Karalora4th Dec 2012 03:09:58 PM from San Fernando Valley, CA , Relationship Status: In another castle
Manliest Person on Skype
In that case, I think we can safely say it's harmless fun.

Actually, given that the Pieten are always played by white dudes in makeup, and never by actual black dudes, the argument could be made that they don't represent real black dudes at all. They've transcended their slightly dodgy folkloric origin to become pure fantasy figures that don't map directly to real human beings.

Interestingly enough, a book I've had since I was a kid, about holiday traditions in various countries, mentioned Zwarte Piet (translating the name as Black Peter). It describes him as "a man with a blackened face," not mentioning race, and the guy in the photo looked more like he was wearing a demon costume than like he was made up to resemble a black person. I don't know if they used a picture of someone in a Krampus costume by mistake or what, but it wasn't until I was an adult that I heard of anyone, Dutch or otherwise, taking offense to the character.

edited 4th Dec '12 4:18:05 PM by Karalora

40 MidnightRambler4th Dec 2012 03:31:02 PM from Germania Inferior
Beata Maria, je clame que mon âme est pure...
[up] Interesting note: Zwarte Piet doesn't really have "dodgy folkloric origins". He can be traced to the picture book Sint Nicolaas en zijn knecht ('Saint Nicholas and his Servant') from 1850 by the teacher and poet Jan Schenkman. This book also introduced the Pakjesboot and the Grand Arrival, as well as the idea that Sinterklaas comes from Spain. It combined those new concepts with existing elements of the Sinterklaas mythos, pretty much inventing Sinterklaas as we know him today.
Auf dem Lande, auf dem Meer
lauert das Verderben;
die Kreatur muss sterben!
41 Karalora4th Dec 2012 03:44:05 PM from San Fernando Valley, CA , Relationship Status: In another castle
Manliest Person on Skype
A painting? Sounds pretty dodgy to me... tongue
42 MidnightRambler4th Dec 2012 03:46:15 PM from Germania Inferior
Beata Maria, je clame que mon âme est pure...
I said a picture book, not a painting tongue

edited 4th Dec '12 4:24:57 PM by MidnightRambler

Auf dem Lande, auf dem Meer
lauert das Verderben;
die Kreatur muss sterben!
43 Euodiachloris4th Dec 2012 04:08:34 PM from England (Oop North) , Relationship Status: Is that a kind of food?
Euo will do!
[up]The old S vs Z thing: it's like y vs ij or K vs C, mate.

South Africa (Suid Afrika... it's in the name, even wink) went with the S, remember? wink But, for a while, Duits could play with any of these combinations. smile

Though, I can't for the life of me think where the V came from... <blinks> Wrong sound entirely, unless you're batting for English. tongue

edited 4th Dec '12 4:11:37 PM by Euodiachloris

"When all else failed, she tried being reasonable." ~ Pratchett, Johnny and the Bomb
44 Karalora4th Dec 2012 04:12:40 PM from San Fernando Valley, CA , Relationship Status: In another castle
Manliest Person on Skype
[up][up] Because I'm a stupid American and my brain is thinking of something else? *goes back and changes posts*

Sorry about that. I'm usually better at paying attention to what I'm doing.

edited 4th Dec '12 4:17:14 PM by Karalora

45 MidnightRambler4th Dec 2012 04:25:50 PM from Germania Inferior
Beata Maria, je clame que mon âme est pure...
Aha, ok, never mind then wink

Oh and Euo, I believe the V instead of W is also quite common in the North Germanic languages (Swedish, Danish, Norse).
Auf dem Lande, auf dem Meer
lauert das Verderben;
die Kreatur muss sterben!
46 Karalora4th Dec 2012 05:36:35 PM from San Fernando Valley, CA , Relationship Status: In another castle
Manliest Person on Skype
I said a picture book, not a painting.

Were the pictures in the book not painted? Were they woodcuts or something?

I really am bad at paying attention today, aren't I? I'll let that one stand.
47 MidnightRambler5th Dec 2012 12:33:11 AM from Germania Inferior
Beata Maria, je clame que mon âme est pure...
[up] Well, it was more like a collection of drawings accompanied by text, not a single picture...

Anyway, interesting update: I just read the paper, and all the readers' letters were complaining about this year's batch of 'Zwarte Piet is racist' criticism. Many of these letters pointed out that the Sinterklaas tradition, including the Zwarte Pieten, is actually well-loved in former Dutch colonies such as Suriname and Curaçao, both of which have huge black majorities.
Auf dem Lande, auf dem Meer
lauert das Verderben;
die Kreatur muss sterben!
48 Greenmantle5th Dec 2012 03:35:44 AM from Greater Wessex , Relationship Status: I know
Phantom of the Spey
@ Railways: Sounds like Britain! Does NS have a mobile website, or is it on Twitter to give passengers updates on services? By the way, have you heard of Abellio?

@ Roads:

In fact, terrible roads are among the many things our southern neighbours are notorious for among Dutch people.

I think they're notorious amongst anyone that had to cross Europe via Belgium, and have been for a long time...
"It's been a long, hard road but you must carry on"
49 Karalora5th Dec 2012 07:03:49 AM from San Fernando Valley, CA , Relationship Status: In another castle
Manliest Person on Skype
For you, Midnight Rambler.

Well, not specifically for you. It's part of a series of ornaments I've been making this year, each one themed to a different country. But I hope you'll appreciate it.
50 Euodiachloris5th Dec 2012 11:36:00 AM from England (Oop North) , Relationship Status: Is that a kind of food?
Euo will do!
Love the dual-tulip, Delfty weight-cum-tassel-knot. smile

edited 5th Dec '12 11:36:08 AM by Euodiachloris

"When all else failed, she tried being reasonable." ~ Pratchett, Johnny and the Bomb

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