Contributing writer Cathy Healy was in Amsterdam this year to see some of the festivities that surround the arrival of Sinterklaas – or the Dutch Santa Claus.
If you’re naughty, not nice in the Netherlands, Santa’s helpers will stuff you in a sack and take you back to Spain. This is a threat? A free trip to Spain in December! But why Spain, I wonder? The real St. Nicholas was a bishop in Turkey and his bones are buried in Italy. A holdover from when Spain ruled Holland, during the Elizabethan era? But that’s another mystery to search out.
Today’s mystery lies in the Sinterklaas traditions, experiencing which, on a scale of 0-10, hovers around 7 for culture sleuths. If Sinter and Santa started out as the same saint, how did they end up so different?
Sinter is welcomed to Amsterdam in mid-November, before our Thanksgiving, and leaves on his birthday, December 6, after his helpers have spent the night, climbing down chimneys to leave gifts. The Dutch separate Sinterklaas and gifts from Christmas and Christ. (I like that. Why should we bundle everything into one single day?)
My Dutch friends think they have the answer. They believe that Santa Claus was created by Coca-Cola, while Sint was a real man who is widely emulated for his gift-giving. Coca-Cola? Nope, that’s an urban legend, I tell them. They laugh and we sip our hot chocolates. It is December 3 and we’re at Corlaer College near Nijkerk, where a crowd of good little boys and girls of the staff are greeting Sinterklaas and his helpers, who are called Black Piets. We’re fascinated.
Many of the children are costumed in vivid Elizabethan-style silks, with black smeared across their faces, like the Piets, and they are thrilled, scared, and excited. Sinterklaas is no jolly ol’ St.
Nick—that’s the U.S. tradition. The Dutch Sint clearly is a high church official garbed in cardinal red and white with a tall prelate’s hat and a heavy gold cross.
“Piet, Piet, Piet,” says Sinter, while his helpers dance and prance and lead the gleeful children in song.
I feel very uncomfortable, as I look at blue-eyed Black Piets, done up in blackface. The Dutch-Dutch look at Black Piets and think “chimney soot” (the most recent story) or they think about the Ethiopian boy who was liberated from slavery by St. Nicholas. Still, I wonder what the Surinam-Dutch, who immigrated to the Netherlands a generation or so ago, think about Black Piets.
Later, I’m encouraged to hear that a few weeks ago when Sinterklaas sailed into Amsterdam with 600 Piets, some had white faces. Will there be more in 2008 on Nov. 16, when Sinterklaas returns? And real black-faced Piets? And brown faces? I wonder whether the newly multi-ethnic Dutch, who have been famous for their tolerance for hundreds of years, will evolve their traditions and have St. Nicholas arrive from his real home in Turkey, thus saluting the Turkish-Dutch.
In the meantime, I’m wondering how to return to the Netherlands next November to join the Sinterklaas parade, and watch the Piets scaling walls of the Bijenkorf department store on Dam Square, and marvel as Sinterklaas and his white stallion, Amerigo, rehearse roof-walking on the roof of the NEMO science center. (Another mystery: What happened to Amerigo? How did we end up with Rudolph, the happiest reindeer of all?)
- Nat Geo Expeditions
And now, back home in Wyoming with Santa only a few days away from my coming down family’s chimney, I wonder if he will bring me a digital videocam so I can shoot a clip of next year’s Sinter caper for this blog.
Santa, I’ve tried to be nice, but you know, I’d kind of like to go to Spain.
Photos: above, the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Marketing; below, Bob Hofman, ICT&E