Thursday, December 6, 2012

Sinterklaas 2012

Het Sint Nicolasfeest, Jan Steen.  Image via Kunst en Cultuur
I was almost certain that I had written something about Sinterklaas before (Feast of St. Nicholas), but glancing through my archives I noticed that there wasn't a post dedicated to it, and I don't have a label for it.  How could I have gone so long and remained silent on the subject?  The Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas on December 5 (Feast of St. Nicholas Eve).  Sinterklaas comes on his white horse with his helper, Zwarte Piet, to deliver gifts to the deserving children of the Low Countries.  Yes, I have a problem with the blatant, racist overtones of the black helper to the white saint, although very few people here seem to be troubled by it.  If you want to know more about that from an expat's perspective, you can read the Jessica Olien's Slate article from last December.

As a fairly integrated foreigner, I try to roll with the differences in culture without succumbing to or becoming an apologist for the aspects I find less than acceptable.  I like to think I do the same with American culture, too, although it is tougher when you're on the inside trying to observe your own sense of identity with a critical eye.  I told Niek that we could celebrate Sinterklaas with Johanna if he wanted to, but that I would draw the line at letting her wear a Zwarte Piet costume or ever, ever, ever wearing blackface.  Seriously, that is just not going to happen.  I'll happily explain to her when she's old enough to understand why it isn't acceptable.

I think we would have let Sinterklaas pass this year without any sort of celebration if we hadn't been invited to a party at our friends' house.  It was a pretty serious affair replete with a visit from Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet themselves.  My friend's brother-in-law filled the role of Sinterklaas and her brother happily dressed up to play the part of Zwarte Piet.

Never have I seen children so excited and terrified all at once.  I suppose it's the same mixed bag of reactions you would see at a mall while kids wait to sit on Santa's lap.  Just like Santa, he knows whether you've been good or bad, and also just like Santa, he brings you gifts.  Instead of elves to do his bidding and manual labor, though, he's got an army of Zwarte Piets to carry his bags, pass out the gifts, and throw (literally throw, as in chucking with full force) handfuls of little cookies and candies to the waiting throngs of children.  The last part is what Johanna liked best as she scrambled around the living room picking up the cookies and popping them in her mouth before I could stop her.  Sitting on a  stranger's lap...yeah, she did not allow that to happen.

Here's a pic of Piet getting ready to throw the pepernoten (the hard, spice cookies) to the crowd.

I really am not sure what Johanna thought of the whole operation.  This was taken a few moments before her name got called.  When Niek brought her closer, she just started wailing.  Right there with you, kid.  I didn't want to sit on the Sint's lap either, even though I had to.

Here's Niek showing me how it's done.  Good times.  All the adults got the traditional chocolate letters. My "D" was pretty delicious.

Honestly, this is my favorite pictures from the entire day.  Sinterklaas, at its heart, is a child-centered holiday, and every parent wants to capture the memories of childhood.  With the explosion in popularity of the smartphone has come the instantaneous record keeping of daily life done en masse.

That was our first Sinterklaas celebration as a family.  I still don't know how to broach the subject of Zwarte Piet with the Dutch.  For the most part I just look at all the Piet decorations and the Piet costumes with a mixture of awe and irritation.  However, I love seeing how excited all the kids get about Sinterklass visiting and their anticipation for the likely gifts they'll receive. The kids were so cute and really bought into the theatrical display of their beloved Sint.  I'll have to see how Johanna reacts next year when a towering man in a miter tries to lure her onto his lap with candy and presents.


  1. I always thought Black Pete was supposed to be blackened by coal dust, as per the custom of giving coal to naughty children.

    1. Steve, the new word on the street is that it is from the soot of the chimneys he goes down to deliver the gifts. In the past naughty children either received a switch for a whipping or were told they would be taken away to Spain in the sack Zwarte Piet carries. In the off months Sinterklaas and Piet live in Spain.
      Traditionally, Zwarte Piet was depicted as a Moor. If the black were from soot, I ask you, why the dark, curly wig and why paint big red lips and wear a gold hoop in your ear? I see the soot explanation as a revisionist way of being able to keep a tradition while skirting the larger, historical issue of race and inequality in Dutch society.

  2. Zwarte Piet made the US news and they seem to have got the Moor taking kids to Spain thing right. It was mostly a chance to get reactions from black people, who said things like "No way in HELL I'm spending Christmas in Holland!"