December 6th, Sinterklaas
When I was little, the 5th of December meant placing your shoe by the chimney or radiator just before you went to bed. You’d stuff it with a carrot, a few cubes of sugar, and a rolled up drawing hailing the characters of the current festivities. Come morning, you’d rush into the living room, excited to see what Sinterklaas had left you. There’d be mandarins, preferably rather leafy, and speculaas in the shape of the fairytale saint himself. Sometimes, there’d be gold-wrapped chocolate coins and chocolate figurines wrapped in colourful, aluminium foil. And, there’d be toys. Toys you’d spent the weeks before selecting from catalogues, window displays, and the endless cycle of commercials being pumped out since early November. You’d flick page after folder page—crammed into your letter box the weeks before—and cut or tore out the ones you wanted. At school, you’d draw a line art version of a hessian bag and stick your cut-out paper toys on it. It was the thing to do, to tabulate.
You wished for extravagant Playmobil sets, stuff to construct with, maybe a new game for your Gameboy, which by then already came in bright colours and an upgraded smaller size. And, half-size, plastic instruments with echoey sound effects. The make-belief child band made it seem so tempting. You were going to play, you were going to sing, you were going to be the brightest thing. The folders, printed on cheap, thin paper, promised so. Your happiness within reach for the price displayed (batteries not included). And, we wanted it all, for we were such greedy little monsters.
We’d leave a shoe out at school, as well. Same set-up. Bunched together, we’d wait outside our classroom. Trying to get traction on the brick to lift ourselves high enough, fingers curled around the wood trimming of the high-up windows. You’d probably scuff someone’s jacket on the way, the wall functioned as a coat rack, after all. If you were tall enough, you only needed to stand on your tip-toes. Our school had big, wide windows, so even with the lights turned off in Winter, we’d still get a proper glimpse. On our desks, there’d be more mandarins, letter biscuits, and chocolate figurines, though these weren’t wrapped in foil. They came in white, milk, and we’d barter with each other to get the flavour we wanted.
Half-way down November, Sinterklaas arrives from Spain, and arrives, and arrives. So, that almost any child in Belgium and The Netherlands has the chance to see him. He arrives by steamboat, where possible, and by horse, or other means if there isn’t a body of water in sight. Once ashore, he and his Black Petes parade through the streets, Sinterklaas most often astride a white horse. Decked out in his red and white, and gold trimmed and embroidered robes, his golden staff in one hand, mitre on his head, and jewellery gracing his gloved fingers. Whilst, children greedily stick out their hands for small biscuits and candy, which the Black Petes dispense from their bags. So much anticipation fluttering about and the sincere belief that the man with the wavy, long, white hair and beard and rich robes is so very, very real. There’s a show we’d watch, called ‘Dag, Sinterklaas’, it was domestic and light-hearted, it showed us what it was like to live in a castle with Sinterklaas and his mischievous Black Petes. The castle was a home away from home for Sinterklaas and his servants. They’d stay there from their arrival till they left once more on the 6th of December. It was domestic and light-hearted. We’d watch them prepare presents and treats, look after Sinterklaas’s horse Bad-Weather-Today, and get up to all sorts of mischief. The show was a kind of bedtime story in our countdown to the 6th. You see, each episode would start with the presenter tucking his little girls into bed and recounting the adventures he’d had that day with Sinterklaas and the Black Petes. They were short, the time it would take to be read a bedtime story, or three, and it had a sedated excitement about it that most other children in the country shared with you. On December 5th, the last episode would the air, the night that Sinterklaas travels from roof to roof, sending his Black Petes down chimneys to claim our offerings and leave us our rewards.
At least, if you’d been good. If you hadn’t been then you’d get beaten with a bundle of sticks or get stuffed down a bag and be dragged off into the very far away. And, that fear, of being taken in the middle of the night is the thing I remember most vividly. Every other memory and association I had to delve a little deeper for. I can’t recall if that vivid memory of fear stemmed from a single year and a single night or if it’s an amalgamation of multiple December 5th’s. My memory, like most, is fallible, subject to change. In her, ‘The Science of The Unconscious Mind’, Rosalind Cartwright says: “Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original… it is a continuing act of creation.” Even with the details warped rather oddly around the edges, the memory of fear, so large and gripping, remains. The idea that children would be beaten or dragged off if they were bad used to be part of the tradition of Sinterklaas, it’s there in the songs and in older, black and white photos, you can still see Black Pete holding a tied bundle of twigs, ‘de roe’. ‘De roe’ or ‘rod’ can still be found in some of the Sinterklaas songs. It’s an older dutch word, that we don’t really use anymore, I don’t think there’s a child out there that knows what the word refers to.
We’ve stopped telling children that this faith could befall them. It no longer fits our current views on childhood and childrearing. We shouldn’t forget that the mythology and story of Sinterklaas isn’t a carbon copy of the decade before, and the one before that, and before that. The story, like many traditions, is in flux. We started with a saint, Nicholas, a Greek bishop who lived in Turkey during the 3rd and 4th century. He lived during a time of persecution of his Christian faith and spent many of his years in prison, because he refused to relinquish his faith. Stories, real or otherwise, started to gather around him throughout the centuries. He was remembered and revered and tales of the miracles he’d performed spread far and wide. In one, three young girls are saved from a lifetime of prostitution when a young Nicholas bestowed three bags of gold upon them for their dowry. In another story, an innkeeper dismembered three boys and pickled their remains, the bishop sensed the crime and returned the boys to life. Through these stories, Saint Nicholas became a patron saint for varying groups. He was known as a gift bringer and a miracle worker. From the 13th century, all the way up to the beginning of the 16th century, he was celebrated on the day of his death, December 6th. A feast celebrated together and marked by treats and gifts. The promise of reward if the children were good ensured that they behaved themselves and remembered to say their prayers. During the 16th century and the Protestant Reformation, saints fell out of favour, but the population wanted to keep the gift-bringer who kept their children in line. Depending on the region, new characters were developed or revived from earlier pre-Christian traditions. Characters, that in some regions, seemed more frightening than the saint ever was. Think of Knecht Ruprecht, Belsnickel, or Krampus. They were a kind of foil to the benevolence of Saint Nicholas, they brought the promise of punishment if one didn’t behave. They were the night to his day and together they formed a dual concept that carried on. One thing that does seem clear, no matter the precise details, is that the figure of Sinterklaas and his companion are cross-pollinated figures of myth. Their story flavoured by Norse, Roman, and Germanic deities and folklore, and most importantly what the current landscape needed them to be.
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I wrote this article in response to a video essay by Vox 'Why Blackface is Still Part of Dutch Christmas' by Christophe Haubursin. It starts from the viewpoint of my childhood and what Sinterklaas meant to me before it delves into the story of how Sinterklaas evolved.
Click the link to read the rest of the article and see a bunch of disturbing 19th century illustrations (see Krampus).
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