15 November, 2012

Sinterklaas is coming to town!

Last week I talked about the celebration of the patron saint of lollies, Sint Maarten and this week we’re joined by his taller, better known and more controversial brother, Sinterklaas.  Well, it’s not so much Sinterklaas who is the controversial one, but it his entourage of Zwarte Pieten that are the cause of much discussion every year.

To be honest, I’ve shied away from talking about Sinterklaas in the past, mostly because after being shouted down in the first year I was here I don’t want to offend by being offended, if you know what I mean.  However, this year I’m giving it a go.

First of all, let’s talk about the Sint himself.  Sinterklaas is who we anglophones know as Saint Nicholas.  Or Santa.  Or Father Christmas.  He is the patron saint of children, sailors, thieves,  and Amsterdam (along with many, many other people and cities).  Saint Nicholas Was a 4th century Greek bishop in Turkey, but in the 11th century his remains were moved to Bari in Italy, before finally coming to rest in Venice in 1100 (although the Irish believe that he is actually buried in Ireland).

He was well known for giving gifts in secret; putting coins in the shoes of people who would leave them out for him.  One of the most famous legends attached to Saint Nicholas is how he secretly paid gave the dowry to a poor man for his three daughters by throwing three purses filled with gold through his window in the dead of night to save humiliating the father by offering public charity.

His name day is celebrated in the Netherlands every year on the night of 05 December, or the morning of the 6th.

So why are we talking about Sinterklaas now?  It’s only mid-November!  Well, Sinterklaas officially arrives in the Netherlands this weekend.  He comes from his home in sunny Spain in a steamship (patron saint of sailors, remember) and upon arrival rides through the city streets on his white horse Amerigo while his entourage of Zwarte Pieten dance, prance and make jokes while throwing pepernoten to the adoring crowd.

Here's the Sint, with the world's most awesome beard.

This is undoubtedly one of the Netherlands’ most beloved traditions.  Every year we watch the arrival of the “Real” Sinterklaas on telly while there are parades in almost every city to celebrate.  Most people get ridiculously excited about pepernoten (and with good cause, those little suckers are delicious!) and catching a glimpse of the Sint as he passes by.

Then, between the 17th of November and and the 5th of December kids everywhere put their shoes out at night to see what little gifts they will receive while they’re asleep.  Traditionally, kids would put a carrot or some hay in the shoe for Amerigo - in much the same way I would leave a beer glass of milk for Santa on Christmas Eve as a child - and place the shoe next to the fireplace (or central heating these days!) and in the morning would receive a small treat.  The most popular treat today is the chocolate letter.  This last weekend we had a family weekend away and on Sunday morning we all woke to see that the sint had been to visit and left us all a letter.  Mine is obviously already long gone...

Other popular treats include speculaas, mandarins, chocolate coins and marzipan.  Then, on the 5th of December it is “Pakejesavond” (present evening) where the real gifts are exchanged.  However, there’s a catch.  You don’t just hand your gifts to one another.  You have to create a “surprise” (said with a French accent) or write a funny poem about one person.  This is a secret process - nobody is supposed to share who they have created the surprise or poem for, and it’s usually a kind hearted dig at something that has happened to the person during the year, or a personality trait to be made fun of.  It is supposed to be all in good fun, but I have heard some horror stories...  

In my first year living here I was initiated into this event and considering my level of creativity is pretty much zero, my surprise (are you still using a French accent to say that in your head?) wasn’t the greatest success.  Some of the family had gone all out though and built fabulous, hilarious creations and it was a fantastic fun evening.  If you look up gezellig in the dictionary, you’ll see a photo of us on pakjesavond in 2008.

This all sounds lovely doesn’t it?  So why all the controversy?  Why is it that this time every year migrants, expats and social commentators all climb on their soapboxes and start shouting about this event?

Well, it’s all about that entourage I mentioned.  The all dancing and mischievous helper Zwarte Piet, whose name literally translates to Black Pete.  How did he come to be a part of this story?  His origins are hotly contested.  Some sources claim that he was a slave boy freed by Saint Nicholas.  Wikipedia talks of an older possible origin, where Zwarte Piet evolved from the legend of Wodan and his two helpers; ravens Huginn and Muninn.  The ravens would listen at the chimney tops and report to Wodan on the good and bad behaviour of those who lived in the houses.  Yet another version is that he has evolved from being the captured devil, forced to assist Saint Nicholas.

Nobody seems to have a problem with the origins of Piet though (aside from being unable to agree upon where he actually came from).  The big issue is what he has evolved into.  Today Zwarte Piet is a character dressed in renaissance attire, with brightly coloured pantaloons, a funky hat with a feather, bright red lips and a black face.  When I first arrived, I was horrified by the black face.  I could not believe that it was socially acceptable for a person to paint their face in the manner of a character that has been considered a bit of a poster child for racism.

The general consensus however, is to explain the coal black face is that Zwarte Piet is dirty from climbing down the chimneys at night.  I personally find this stance difficult to reconcile.  Why is he completely black?  Why are his lips painted bright red?  If he is really dirty from climbing down the chimney, why not make him look like that?  Why is the make up even necessary?

However, my views have mellowed in the years that I have lived here.  While I still find the black face repugnant, I can accept that there is no racist intention in the tradition, and the problem is mine and mine alone.  To be perfectly honest, I’ve found it hilarious to be sitting in the car at the lights on a dark Pakjesavond to look over and see Zwarte Piet on his way to a party, filling a tiny hatchback with his presence.  How can that be a racist image?

I can very slowly see the character evolving commercially too.  Just this week going through the Sinterklaas catalogues that were pushed through the door, the blackface was virtually non-existent and only in cartoon images actually.  In the V&D catalogue for example, the (model) kids were dressed in the cool outfits, with no make up whatsoever and in other catalogues there were hints of soot here and there.

I think this is a great step forward in the evolution of the character.  After all, it is the retail giants who will slowly push the changes onto society, much as we hate to admit it.

But enough of the sidekick (if only Robin scored this much press, he would have his own comic.  Or does he?).  Let’s focus on what’s important:  celebration.  Sinterklaas is coming to town this week.  He arrives on a ship and rides a beautiful horse.  And best of all, we all have an excuse to stuff our faces with pepernoten, guilt-free.

And between now and for the next few weeks kids will be having their shoes filled with goodies some mornings (not every morning, that would be greedy) and then comes Pakjesavond where we all get together as a family and celebrate Saint Nicholas’ birthday by taking the piss out of one another with funny poems and surprises (oui oui).

As a bit of a tradition of our own, I’ll be making roast pork with all the trimmings and we’ll be replacing that gezellig 2008 image with one from 2012.

What's your experience of Sinterklaas? Can you help me write my poem, by any chance? I'm useless...

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