...and it's snowing! Could the conditions be any more perfect? Yes, the days are (considerably) darker than they were even a few weeks ago, and, yes, the snow is melting pretty much as soon as it hits the ground... but as soon as you arrive at Amsterdam Central train station and see the full force of the Christmas decorations now everywhere around the city, the less than ideal weather conditions and lack of sunlight are replaced with the festiveness and joy that are an inevitable consequence of spending the holiday season in this beautiful city.
Sinterklaas, or St Nicholas as you may know him, is the guy responsible for another bearded old gift-giving dude known to the world as Santa Claus. In fact, "Santa Claus" is derived from the old Dutch "Sinter Klaas" and first became an integral part of North American consciousness when he was revived by the Dutch community of New York (first settled by the Dutch) in the 17th and 18th century as a way of reconnecting with their roots. Somewhere along the process his arrival got moved from early December to Christmas and his gifts got bigger. Blame commercialism for what Santa Claus has become if you will, but both he and the Sint are based on St Nicholas, the patron saint of children.
As you may have already gathered from the name of this blog post, tonight is the night Sinterklaas, who at least to me always looks like Santa's classier European cousin, and his band of merry black helpers, the Zwarte Piets (more on them later), adorned in medieval garb distribute small gifts and candy to the nation's children. Before heading to bed tonight, millions of Dutch kids will polish their best shoes, and set them beside the fireplace (or a more modern heat-distributing device) along with a carrot and some water for Sinterklaas' horse. If they've been good children, they will find some candy and small gifts in their shoes the following morning. Grown ups tend to exchange presents via what some of us know as "Secret Santa" - everyone picks a name out of a hat and subsequently buys a present for that one person.
The kicker is that in Secret Sinterklaas, participants also have to write a humorous poem (with a specific rhyming structure, I should add) about the person for whom they're buying a gift. From personal experience I'd like to note that, if you ever find yourself doing Secret Sinterklaas with a group that includes Dutch people, you better make your poem damn good. Dutchies have decades of Sinterklaas poem writing experience on you, and their poems will inevitably be epic: several pages in length, funny, relevant, RHYMING, slightly insulting, and above all very personal. Tears will be shed all around. Thus, if you don't come up with something amazing, you are going to feel left out because there's sure as heck an epic poem coming your way.
Taking into account the complex metamorphosis of St Nicholas into Sinterklaas, where, then, does Zwarte Piet come from? Literally translated as "Black Pete," Zwarte Piet is usually portrayed by a Dutch adolescent in blackface with a large afro-like wig, and large red lips drawn on. There's usually a few Zwarte Piets accompanying Sinterklaas, and the Zwarte Pieten throw small round ginger cookies called pepernoten into the crowd (a tradition supposedly derived from the story of St Nicholas saving three girls from prostitution by tossing golden coins through their window at night so as to buy their freedom: the Sint definitely does not mess about).
Although the whole concept of blackface and its relevance in a modern multicultural society has been receiving a lot of attention in both the Dutch and global medias lately, the Dutch for the most part refuse to part with the idea of the Sint's dark-skinned helper, nor even to acknowledge that there may be any harm in the tradition. That said, two major Dutch chain stores, V&D and Blokker, have recently replaced Zwarte Pieten with children with soot-smeared faces in their advertising campaigns. Although centuries old, it seems that the tradition of Sinterklaas is still evolving. Regardless of what the tradition may transform into, and perhaps most tellingly of all, Sinterklaas is beloved by Dutch children of all racial backgrounds and Sint, being the good guy he is, definitely does not discriminate either.
On that note, go clean your shoes and find them a spot by the central heating unit - Sinterklaas is coming to town!
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