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.)
(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
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
, 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