Funny thing, most people only know of Santa Claus. But in Europe and the Caribbean, specifically in countries in the Dutch Kingdom and Belgium) there is a similar symbol that brings gifts to well-behaved children in December known as Sinterklaas or Saint Nicholas.
Sinterklaas is celebrated on December 5th in the morning while Santa Claus is celebrated on Christmas Day. So we have basically two celebrations that are based on the same person because Saint Nicolas did exist many centuries ago. Since many people don’t know about Sinterklaas, let’s start with him.
Sinterklaas: The Saint
Sinterklaas is the basis for the North American figure of Santa Claus. Sinterklaas is a legendary figure based on Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children. That lived during 270 and 343. He is a Greek bishop of Myra (a harbor city just south and east of Patara, now known as Demre) in Lycia (Turkey).
Nicholas’ parents were believers who had prayed for a child for a long time. When Nicholas was finally born, his parents devoted him to God. He was raised with great affection and special attention. Unfortunately Nicholas lost his parents at a young age. Even though a loss like this might turn some away from God, it seems to have drawn Nicholas closer to him and made hime more aware of the suffering of others.
Nicholas inherited the wealth of his parents and decided that he would use it to honor God. He developed such a good reputation in his region that he was chosen as Archbishop of Myra in his early twenties.
There are many stories about Nicholas’ life and many of them emphasize his kindness and generosity. After his death on December 6, his followers started a tradition of gift giving in his honor.
Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) is described as a serious old man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape over a traditional white bishop’s alb and (sometimes) red stola and holds a long ceremonial shepherd’s staff with a fancy curled top.
He traditionally rides a white horse. In the Dutch Kingdom, the horse is called Amerigo, and in Belgium, it is called Slecht Weer Vandaag (Bad Weather Today). Sinterklaas carries a big, red book in which is written whether each kid has been good or naughty in the past year.
About the Zwarte Pieten
The Zwarte Pieten are fictional characters born of folklore traditions. They are Sinterklaas helpers and are characterized as mischievous helpers, who dressed in colorful Moorish dresses. They were initially identified as Moors.
Traditionally the face of the person who impersonates Zwarte Piet had to be obligatory made unrecognizable, so children wouldn’t know if he is from the family, a friend of their parents or a neighbor. Before theater make-up became affordable and easy to get, people in general used charred cock, to similate the dark coal dust collected on the face when going through and coming from chimneys.
Zwarte Piet’s colourful dress is based on 16th-century noble attire, with a lace collar and a feathered cap. He carries a bag which contains candy for the children. The Zwarte Pieten toss their candy around, a tradition supposedly based on in the story of Saint Nicholas saving three young girls from prostitution by tossing golden coins through their window at night to pay their dowries.
The evolution of Zwarte Pieten
Traditionally, a Zwarte Piet would also carry a chimney sweep’s broom made of willow branches, used to spank children who had been naughty.
Some of the older Sinterklaas songs make mention of naughty children being put in Zwarte Piet’s bag and being taken back to Spain for a year to teach them how to behave.
Children are told that the Zwarte Pieten keep a record of all the things they have done in the past year in a big book. Good children will get presents from Sinterklaas, but bad children will be put in a sack and the Zwarte Pieten take them to Spain for a year to teach them how to behave! In modern versions of the Sinterklaas feast, however, Zwarte Piet no longer carries the roe and children are no longer told that they will be taken back to Spain in Zwarte Piet’s bag if they have been naughty.
Over the years many stories have been added and the role of Zwarte Piet change, and Zwarte Piet has developed from a rather unintelligent helper into a valuable assistant to the Saint.
In modern adaptations for television, Sinterklaas has developed a Zwarte Piet for every function, such as a head Piet (Hoofdpiet), a navigation Piet (Wegwijspiet) or Captain to navigate the steamboat from Spain to the Netherlands, a gift-wrapping Piet (Pakjespiet) to wrap all the gifts, and an acrobatic Piet to climb roofs and chimneys.
They are loved by the children (even more than Sinterklaas himself). Children want to be as though, sporty, funny generous and kind as the Pieten. To sum up, Zwarte Piet started initially as a bogeyman but has gradually evolved into a friendly entertainer.
There are many controversies around the Zwarte Pieten. In some countries the Zwarte Pieten only have a few smudges on the Face. Other countries just have them as white coincidentally just in the period of role change which was probably at the beginning of the 21st century.
Which brings the question: why didn’t these controversies come up as strong before? Just as the role of Sinterklaas helper changed into that of a hero instead of a bogeyman, it was conveniently promoted in favor of the white. The controversy got more popularity when many compared Zwarte Piet with the American black face which was wrong. The origins are completely different. There was even proposed the cancel the festivity.
All these were adult’s doings. In the end we should remember that it’s a children’s holiday and they don’t really care if Piet is black, white, blue or grey. They are the heart of the parties.
Traditional Sinterklaas Celebration
The festivities traditionally begin each year in mid-November, when Sinterklaas “arrives” by steamboat from Spain (Sinterklaas is said to come from Spain, possibly because, half of Saint Nicholas’ relics were transported to the Italian city of Bari in 1087, which later formed part of the Spanish Kingdom of Naples).
The steamboat anchors, then Sinterklaas disembarks and parades through the streets on his horse (or in a jeep), welcomed by children cheering and singing traditional Sinterklaas songs. His Zwarte Piet assistants throw candy and small, round, gingerbread-like cookies, either kruidnoten or pepernoten, into the crowd.
On the evening that Sinterklaas arrives, children leave a shoe out by the fireplace and sing Sinterklaas songs.
The children hope that Sinterklaas will come during the night with some presents. They also believe that if they leave some hay and carrots in their shoes for Sinterklaas’s horse, they will be left some sweets or small presents.
Children are told that, during the night, Sinterklaas rides on the roofs on his horse and that a ‘Zwarte Piet’ will then climb down the chimney (or through a window) and put the presents and/or candy in their shoes.
The evening of December 5th is called St. Nicholas’ Eve ‘Sinterklaasavond’ or ‘Pakjesavond’ (present evening). The children will receive their presents during the evening. There might be a knock at the door and you might find a sack full of presents!
Sinterklaas parties are often held on St. Nicholas’ Eve (5th), where treasure hunt games are played with poems and riddles giving the clues. Children follow the clues to find little presents left by Sinterklaas.
Let’s not forget the incredible acrobatic dance shows that are presented by the Zwarte Pieten to entertain the children. This is the best part of the parties (next to getting presents obviously).
Special biscuits and sweets are also eaten at the party. One type of biscuit is called ‘letter blanket’ or ‘banketletter’ (meaning letter cake), which is made from marzipan or chocolate.
The biscuits are made in the shapes of the first letter of the peoples names who are at the party. Another popular sweet biscuit that is eaten at the parties are ‘pepernoot’ which are made with cinnamon and spices in the pastry biscuit mix.
Surprise presents are also given on St. Nicholas’ Day. A custom at the Sinterklaas parties, often within classes at schools, is that everyone’s name is put into a hat and everyone picks another person’s name – then they have to make a surprise present for that person. The presents are often things that the person would find useful with their favorite hobby. The presents come with a poem inside that gives a clue to who might have sent the present, but it is all meant to be a mystery!
On the 6th of December Sinterklaas (the birthday of Sinterklaas) leaves the Netherlands by steamboat via the entrance of the port of Rotterdam (Europe’s largest port) called the Hook of Holland and he travels back to Spain.
In essence, the Holiday is about making children happy and take care of those in need like Saint Nicholas did when he was alive. Another similar holiday is celebrated on December 25 with Santa Claus. In the next post we will explore a little bit into the symbol of Santa Claus. Let’s take a look..