Kerst or Sinterklaas
I don’t really like Christmas. Maybe because it is presented as a Christian feast and I am an atheist (last year me and some friends sent our families and friends ‘happy wintersolstice cards), maybe because I think Christmas trees look kind of sad, maybe because of the hypocrite ‘be nice, it’s Christmas’ remarks, but the main reason is probably the competition between Sinterklaas and Santa Claus.
I am a big fan of Sinterklaas. The feast is celebrated on the 5th of December. A couple of weeks before that date St. Nicolaas arrives in The Netherlands in a steamboat and his arrival is broadcast live on TV. Sinterklaas brings large groups of Zwarte Pieten (Black Pete’s) with him to help deliver all the presents and find out whether kids have behaved well during the past year. In the days after that Sinterklaas comes to visit all other cities in the country, with him come the Pete’s who carry big linen or jute bags filled with gingernuts or other small candies. Often Sinterklaas arrives at different cities at the same time (or at different places in the same city if it is a large city). The kids are told that they are helping Sinterklaas’s, because the old Saint Nicolaas can’t visit all the cities all by himself. Also, many elementary schools and shopping malls will get paid a visit by Sinterklaas and his zwarte Pieten.
In the days between the arrival and the actual feast, children are allowed to put a shoe in front of the fireplace before they go to sleep (we used to put them in front of the central heater) and when they get downstairs the next morning there usually is a small gift in it. Most of the time it’s traditional Sinterklaas candy, like gingernuts, marchepane or the first letter of your name in chocolate. After placing their shoe, kids often sing a Sinterklaas song and put a bowl of water and carrots for Sinterklaas’ horse beside it (next morning the carrot will be gone and the kids’ll be wondering if the horse really got inside the living room) — and of course a list of the stuff they would like to get on 5 December. Sometimes (if they have creative parents) they’ll find a letter from Sinterklaas in their shoe.
I remember my father telling me that one time when he misbehaved, he didn’t find candy in his shoe when he came downstairs, but charcoal!
When it’s finally 5 December, kids will be very nervous. Usually they’ll have to wait till it’s evening. Then, often with the help of neighbours or an older sibling who ‘had to go to the kitchen to get some drinks’, the doorbell will ring and there’ll be a big bag of presents in front of the door! Or, in case the parents are creative, this may be different. I remember one particular Sinterklaas feast where the key for our garage had been missing for a week. My parents had looked everywhere and me and my brother searched the whole house, but we couldn’t find it. Then, on the evening of 5 December, I heard the sound of the letterbox and it turned out we had gotten a letter from a black Pete ! The letter said that the presents where somewhere nearby and with the letter came the key for our garage! Suddenly all the pieces fell together and I got very excited. I ran to the garage and there was a big box filled with presents inside it!
When they reach the age of 8 or 9, kids usually find out that Sinterlkaas is actually their parents and that the black pete that visited them looked an awfull lot like the neighbour from next door. From there the feast changes a bit. There are no more shoe settings or bags filled with presents in front of the door. Instead the members of the family buy each other presents and give them to each other on the evening of 5 December. Often, accompanying the presents is a poem (well, more a rhyme actually) written by the gift giver. Subjects of the poem are, for instance, something that happened to that person in the past year or some personality traits of the person the gift is for. Most poems make fun (in a nice way) of the person they’re for. Besides a poem, people also sometimes make ‘surpise’ (it’s pronounced in the French way). A surprise is a present in a very unusual ‘wrapping’ that has something related to the present itself, the poem or the person you’re giving it to. Because of the amount of work it takes when you have to make a surprise and a poem, you will often find a group of people who have to decided to celebrate the feast by randomly selecting (a few weeks in advance) just one person they have to make surprise and rhyme for. And in those weeks, everyone is always under a lot of stress because they have to finish their surprise and poem and still have buy a gift Also, everyone is always trying to guess who everyone else has to make a surprise for, but most people manage to keep it a secret untill the feast itself. Some people stop celebraing Sinterklaas when their kids are too old and instead give each other presents on Christmas.
This year I was present at three Sinterklaas celebrations.
On the 4th of December I was with my brother and five of his friends in my mother’s house (my mother was on a vacation to New Zealand, so she couldn’t be there, but she did leave me and my brother some presents). They had bought presents and had written a rhyme for each one of the group. For one, randomly detemined pesron they had bought an expensive gift and a cheap one for the others. I myself didn’t participate as I don’t know his friends that well, but I stayed because it was fun to see what they had bought for each other and to hear their poems.
On the 5th of December I celebrated Sinterklaas with my father, his girlfriend and my brother. We’d agreed to buy gifts and write poems for each other. Of course, my brother had his poem finished only five minutes before we started.
On the 6th I celebrated Sinterklaas in the student’s flat where I live. At the moment I live here with 13 guys and one girl. We had agreed to make a surprise and poem for one randomly determined person. Usually the cooking takes place in three cooking groups that we have arranged, in which its members take turns in cooking for each other, but for this occasion we decided to have on big meal together. After the washing of the dishes everyone brought his surprise downstairs and the feast started. We’d bought a lot of wine, beer and liqour and a huge pile of gingernuts. It took a couple of hours before everyone had opened his presents and had read his poem. It was a lot of fun.
Every year there are some people who’ll get angry about the Sinterklaas feast because they think it’s a rascist feast because of the black petes (for some strange reason the people that are complaining are always white…). It only shows that they didn’t even do some reading on the history of the Sinterklaas feast. The history goes back over 15 centuries. People in this region had several gods. One of them was Wodan, who rides through the air on his white, eight-legged horse Sleipnir. He was accompanied by two ravens who’d tell him everything that happened on earth. If people had been good he’d throw gifts in the chimney, if they weren’t they would be visited by Eckehardt, a black faced spirit. When the Catholic church became powerfull they mixed the story with that of Saint Nicolaas, the Bishop of Myra, who was known to be very kind to kids and very generous. During the war with Spain, people here saw Moorish people for the first time and Eckehardt became a blackfaced human. Over time, the feast got softer, nowadays Sinterklaas and his Petes hardly punish kids anymore. Dutch immigrants brought the tradition to the USA where, with the help of Coca Cola, Sinterklaas morphed in Santa Claus.
Hmm… my writing has become longer than I’d expected. I hope you found it interesting though.