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When it comes to discussing the Dutch phenomenon of Sint Nicolaas and his feast day, Sinterklaas, on 5 December, many expats go straight for the jugular: his black "helpers", (Zwarte Pieten, singular Zwarte Piet) are really a caricature of black slaves.
Zwarte Pieten, not chimney sweeps
A libel, say Dutch traditionalists. To them, Zwarte Piet is Sint's valued companion; his black hue may owe more to his clambering up and down chimneys than his ethnic origin. (Although it is unclear how soot can bring about frizzy Afro hair and big red lips.) There is another view, held by both some expats and locals, namely: who cares? Sinterklaas is about having fun and goodwill to all.
Zwarte Pieten, not chimney sweeps
Your view on the subject will help you pass the hours in rigorous arguments with opponents in the bar or at work but it won't help you get through Sinterklaas with Dutch in-laws and a brood of expectant children.
Here are some pointers that might help:
Who's that guy?
According to the online Wikipedia, Saint Nicholas, also known as Nikolaus in Germany and Sinterklaas (a contracted form of Sint Nicolaas) in the Netherlands and Flanders, is the common name for the historical Saint Nicholas of Myra.
Saint Nicholas lived in 4th century Byzantine Lycia (modern Turkey) and had a reputation for secret gift-giving. He is seen as the main inspiration for the character of Santa Claus. Among Orthodox Christians, he is remembered with more reverence and less frivolity.
For some reason he resides most of the year in Spain and comes by boat to the Netherlands — with his Moorish Zwarte Pieten — in the latter part of November in preparation for his present-delivery service on 5 December. While here, he rides around on a white horse.
Whatever you think about his 'helpers', Saint Nicholas has all manner of dubious friends: he is saint of seamen, merchants, archers, children, prostitutes, pharmacists, lawyers and prisoners, and of Russia and Amsterdam.
Putting your shoe out
When Sint is in the country, children traditionally put their shoe next to the heater/chimney. Nowadays, they put their shoe next to the radiator, because the Piets have no trouble crawling through them either, apparently.
In the shoe is usually a carrot or two sugar lumps for Saint Nicholas' white horse, with which he traverses the roofs of the houses. In the morning, the carrot will have been replaced by a little sweet. In order not to have to give sweets every day, some parents make up stories about how the Sint only comes in their street twice a week or something like that.
Can I eat now?
Lots and lots of sweet things, including
If your young children are raised here, this is a required shopping list. Taking out supplementary health insurance to cover major dentistry is also an idea. Unfortunately, this is not part of Sint's gift package.
If you have children, make an appointment with your neighbour to come knocking on your door on 'Pakjesavond' (= parcel evening, December 5 = when you hand out the presents). After some loud bangs on the door, stall a little while by saying things like "What was that?" and "that couldn't be …?", to give your neighbour time for a clean getaway.
Then, the whole family goes to the door and voila! — a big box/bag of presents. And no Sint or Piet to be seen — a mystery!
Of course, some time later, dad or mum "has to go to the loo" for quite a long time, so he or she can do the same for the neighbour. The traditional instructions refer to "dad", but we don't want Sinterklaas to be linked with sexism.
If you hire a Sinterklaas actor, try to book him early in the evening, so he won't have had time to imbibe prior to the vital task.
Adults and teenagers usually give each other presents by drawing names. The idea is that you don't just buy a present, you build in a "surprise" (could be anything) and hide the present inside it. Then you wrap the surprise, put the receiver's name on it and write a Sinterklaas poem to go along with it.
This is the part that many newbie expats with Dutch in-laws dread — not only do you have to write a poem, preferably in Dutch — you have to read the poem attached to your present. Think of it as a Dutch class; you are bound to make mistakes, but that is how you learn a language.
Lets face it, most of us can never hope to match the Bard. Yet taking the trouble to pen a few lines is sure to ingratiate you with your Dutch in-laws. It isn't so difficult.
First-timers can write the poem in English (or German, French etc — the Dutch are linguists).
The main thing is that the poem, which has to rhyme, usually has some references to the receiver as well as some hints about what the present is. So, the receiver has to guess what it is before unwrapping it.
Do you know what this is referring to?
Daarom hebben Piet en Sint voor jou iets heel speciaals gezocht
iets waardoor je altijd lachend door het leven gaat.
Het was werkelijk een vreselijk gezoek.
Maar één ding vraagt de Sint,
draag het en plein publiek altijd ónder een bovenbroek*
As with most things in life, you can cheat. You could use an online Sinterklaas poem generator if you know a little Dutch.
On the 5 December it's present night. Adults, especially relatives, don't always go for the 'surprise' option, but just buy presents for everyone. Again, these are placed in a big box or pile and the same procedure ensues about handing out the presents, so you never know who gave you your present, although you can usually tell from the poem.
It is said that the Saint has his own birthday+ the next day, 6 December, and he wants to give everyone presents to celebrate this. However, he always spends his birthday travelling back to Spain, where he lives. He travels by steamship (although he was around long before steam ships were invented).
The presents are all put on a big pile. Usually, the youngest person gets to pick a present first. Then that person takes one of the presents from the pile and gives it to its rightful owner — and so on. In this way, it is unclear who actually gave you the present, so you have something else to guess about.
It would seem that at least some non-native Dutch residents from the former Dutch colonies of the Netherlands Antilles and Suriname are getting in on the fun.
This writer was handed some pepernoten by a real black Zwarte Piet last year in a fast food restaurant in the south-east of Amsterdam — an area full of non-white residents. Some Turkish, Hindustani and Moroccan children in the area were singing Sinterklaas songs and dressed as mini-Piets.
Has racial stereotyping become ingrained in the immigrant communities in the Netherlands. Perhaps, or maybe children of all races like sweets and presents?
Interestingly, when reporting on the arrival of Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten in 2005, public broadcaster NOS said the Saint's steamboat sailed into a rainbow on the way to the Netherlands.
As a result, the Zwarte Pieten have blue, green, yellow and red faces in 2005. A debate has since erupted on internet forums about the alleged political correctness of NOS.
Also, a report on Dutch television about one of the former coloniesin 2004 featured a Sint with his face painted white. What does this mean?
We hope this guide helps you make the most of Sinterklaas and avoid being 'played the Zwarte Piet' (being made the scapegoat) for spoiling the evening.
Enjoy and best wishes.
Updated November 2008
* Thanks to the anonymous poet
+ Some say 6 December is Sinterklaas' name day (the day he died)
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