Hi there, Bookwheelers! I’m Wendy and I blog at Wensend. Some of you might know me, some of you might not. But I know most of you don’t have this in common with me: I’m Dutch! That means I don’t celebrate the holidays the same way Americans do every year. Sure, we do celebrate Christmas eve and Christmas (actually we have two Christmas days, as you can see in the video below). But we also have something you don’t have: Sinterklaas. We celebrate “Sinterklaasavond” (Saint Nicholas Eve) or “pakjesavond” (presents eve) at December 5th to celebrate this Saint’s birthday, which is today. So I thought this would be a good time to tell you something about our customs.
Sinterklaas, whose name is an abbrevation of Saint Nicholas, is the patron Saint of children and a former bishop of Myra, a place in Turkey. When Europeans began going to the United States they took the feast of Sinterklaas with them. There the name of this Saint became Santa Claus and this is still represented in the way Americans celebrate christmas. In other parts of Europe the idea of this Saint has developed into different forms and his valets, Black Petes, are also different in every region.
Sinterklaas arrives in The Netherlands on a boat, every year in a different city in our country, accompanied by his valets. His arrival is celebrated by a great feast, broadcasted on national television. Every year something goes wrong, so the children will wonder: will he be in time? Will Sinterklaas be celebrated this year? Of course all the adults know it’s just a joke. What happens to Sinterklaas and his helpers before they arrive and during their visit is also broadcasted on tv in a children’s show we call “Sinterklaas journaal”, which means something like “Saint Nicholas News”.
In the few weeks Sinterklaas is in The Netherlands it is celebrated everywhere, though mostly by parents with children. After the Saint has arrived in The Netherlands every city has its own smaller celebrated arrival of the Saint, so children can meet him. He rides on his horse, Amerigo, through the city and the Black Petes hand out cookies we call “pepernoten” to all the children. Next to this celebration, children also celebrate Sinterklaas at their parent’s work, at school, with family and finally the traditional “Sinterklaas eve” on December 5th. Children also leave their shoes in the living room when they’re going to sleep, just like Americans hang their stockings, so Sinterklaas can put something in it. Sinterklaas rides on his horse on the rooftops and goes through the chimneys to bring gifts. According to the tradition Sinterklaas’s birthday is on December 6th, so he leaves presents for the children the night before and returns to Spain, where he’s from, on his birthday.
Black Petes vs. elves
Orginally, the Black Petes were meant as evil figures who would punish children if they didn’t behave. Sinterklaas songs say children would be put in a bag and taken back to Spain if they were naughty.
Lately there’s been a lot of discussion in the Netherlands around the appearance of Black Pete. As you can see in the images and pictures, a Black Pete is an adult who has made his face black. He has curly hair, red lips and is dressed as a seventeenth century page. The relationship between Sinterklaas and his Petes is roughly the same as the relationship between Santa Claus and his elves. Every Pete has a different function: there’s the Head Pete, the Navigation Pete, the Chef Pete, etc. Lately Black Pete is seen by some people as racist, though they are mostly intelligent helpers of Sinterklaas and the legend says their faces are black due to going up and down the dirty chimneys. So there’s been some political involvement in this issue, with even the United Nations wanting to do research. Luckily the traditional feast will be the same as always this year, but there have been some ideas about making the Black Petes all colourful. We’ll see what will happen in the years to come..
If you’re still wondering what Sinterklaas and his Petes look like, you can watch this video of the arrival of Sinterklaas this year, which starts with the “Sinterklaas journaal”. And if you still want to know more about Dutch holidays, I recommend watching this act by British comedian John Fealey on Dutch holidays, which is quite hilarious.
I hope you’ve gotten to know something about this Dutch holiday and I want to wish you all a happy Sinterklaas!