Kirsten Wagenaar

Sinterklaas season

In Cut and Paste on November 17, 2008 at 10:55 am

Sinterklaas 2008

The Feast of Sinterklaas, or St. Nicholas, is an annual event which has been uniquely Dutch and Flemish for centuries. Although Sinterklaas is always portrayed in the vestments of the bishop he once was, his status as a canonized saint has had little to do with the way the Dutch think of him. Rather, he is a kind of benevolent old man, whose feast day is observed by exchanging gifts and making good-natured fun of each other. It so happens that the legend of St. Nicholas is based on historical fact. He did actually exist. He lived from 271 A.D. to December 6th, 342 or 343.
All Dutch children know that Sinterklaas (the name is a corruption of Sint Nikolaas) lives in Spain. Exactly why he does remains a mystery, but that is what all the old songs and nursery rhymes say. Whatever the case may be, in Spain he spends most of the year recording the behaviour of all children in a big red book, while his helper Black Peter stocks up on presents for next December 5th. In the first weeks of November, Sinterklaas gets on his white horse, Peter (“Piet”) swings a huge sack full of gifts over his shoulder, and the three of them board a steamship headed for the Netherlands. Around mid-November they arrive in a harbour town – a different one every year – where they are formally greeted by the Mayor and a delegation of citizens. Their parade through town is watched live on television by the whole country and marks the beginning of the “Sinterklaas season”.

The old bishop and his helpmate are suddenly everywhere at once. At night they ride across Holland’s’ rooftops and Sinterklaas listens through the chimneys to check on the children’s behaviour. Piet jumps down the chimney flues and makes sure that the carrot or hay the children have left for the horse in their shoes by the fireplace is exchanged for a small gift or some candy.

The Dutch are busy too – shopping for, and more importantly, making presents. Tradition demands that all packages be camouflaged in some imaginative way, and that every gift be accompanied by a fitting poem. This is the essence of Sinterklaas: lots of fun on a day when people are not only allowed, but expected, to make fun of each other in a friendly way. Children, parents, teachers, employers and employees, friends and co-workers tease each other and make fun of each others’ habits and mannerisms.
Another part of the fun is how presents are hidden or disguised. Recipients often have to go on a treasure hunt all over the house, aided by hints, to look for them. They must be prepared to dig their gifts out of the potato bin, to find them in a jello pudding, in a glove filled with wet sand, in some crazy dummy or doll. Working hard for your presents and working even harder to think up other peoples’ presents and get them ready is what the fun is all about.

The original poem accompanying each present is another old custom and a particularly challenging one. Here the author has a field day with his subject (the recipient of the gift). Foibles, love interests, embarrassing incidents, funny habits and well-kept secrets are all fair game. The recipient, who is the butt of the joke, has to open his/her package in public and read the poem aloud amid general hilarity. The real giver is supposed to remain anonymous because all presents technically come from Sinterklaas, and recipients say out loud “Thank you, Sinterklaas!”, even if they no longer believe in him.

On the day of the 5th, most places of business close a bit earlier than normal. The Dutch head home to a table laden with the same traditional sweets and baked goods eaten for St. Nicholas as shown in the 17th-century paintings of the Old Masters. Large chocolate letters – the first initial of each person present – serve as place settings. A basket filled with mysterious packages stands close by and scissors are at hand. Early in the evening sweets are eaten while those gathered take turns unwrapping their gifts and reading their poems out loud so that everyone can enjoy the impact of the surprise. The emphasis is on originality and personal effort rather than the commercial value of the gift, which is one reason why Sinterklaas is such a delightful event for young and old alike.

Source: http://www.thehollandring.com

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