Here’s how it is.
Every year Saint Nicholas, also known as Sinterklaas, visits Holland to distribute presents to all the good children of the land. His birthday is on December 6, but on December 5 all the sweet Dutch kids eagerly await his visit and the presents that go along with it.
It’s a national event in a very real sense, and a national conspiracy that I adore.
Every child knows that the Sint can’t be everywhere at once and that a single night is not enough time for an old man on a white dapple horse to visit every child. That’d be ridiculous! He’s 1742 years old. That kind of travel is exhausting, and the sheer number of presents involved is a logistical nightmare. Dutch kids are smart and practical, they understand these things, and they understand that the Sint that comes to their school or their home is, in all likelihood, a teacher or neighbor in a fake beard… probably. There’s always that chance that he’s the real one.
Because there is, in every way that matters, a real and actual Sinterklaas.
His arrival by steamboat, a few weeks before the big day, is a nationally televised event. Thousands of families wait at the piers of whichever town his boat’s docking at this year. It’s always exciting, because in the weeks prior to the Sint’s arrival, the children’s news programs show reportage segments on the preparations being made by the trusting old Sint and his by turns incompetent and overachieving assistants.
One year, an administrative mixup saw the boat with fake presents accidentally loaded with real presents. Children were advised by the chief of police that, if they found a decorative present that seemed to actually have something in it, they should bring it to their local police station. The cops would liaise with Sint’s organization to see that the real presents arrived at the proper recipient.
So the stakes are high while the people of Holland await the steamboat’s arrival. Will they solve their navigational hurdles? Do they have enough fuel? Have the sweets not gone off yet?
The Sint arrives in his red vestments and mitre, carrying his curled gold staff. He climbs on his trusty horse, a white dapple called Amerigo, who arrives separately on his own boat because he’s just that cool. And off he goes with his retinue in tow.
Speaking of his retinue, this is something that always needs some explaining to foreigners. The Sint, you see, is accompanied by Zwarte Pieten, Black Petes. These are capering assistants in colorful minstrel outfits, with black curly wigs and puffy bonnets and gaudy feathers — and blackface. Red lips, too. Many’s the time I’ve nudged a confused tourist, while watching the Sint’s parade, and told them that it would take too long to explain, but it’s not racist. Trust me.
If they press me for an explanation, I sigh and tell them that Black Pete is a devil — this explanation has never successfully resolved anyone’s confusion, I should add. As the legend goes, Saint Nicholas defeated and enslaved a devil and tasked him with, among other things, going up and down chimneys to drop off presents, and thus his face is covered in soot.
Over the centuries, this legend fell victim to a game of Chinese whispers. During the reign of a puritannical government the celebration of saint’s days was restricted, and after this quasi-ban was lifted, the liturgy was dusted off and reexamined by a changed populace.
The notion of an enslaved devil was a bit weird to the more modern and more protestant Dutch, but the images of the soot-faced Black Pete by now evoked a different connotation. The Dutch involvement in international slavery is well-documented, of course, but very few people at home had ever seen a moor or a sub-Saharan African. In their pragmatism and innocence, people decided the most logical assumption was that the Sint had a black slave. Probably more than one.
So how can I argue that it’s not racist, despite the association of black slavery?
The connotation is simply an accident. The product of a practical, sober, thoroughly Dutch imagination applying vaguely familiar concepts to a confusing myth. Very few citizens, let alone kids, had ever seen a black person. They hadn’t read Tom Sawyer or Uncle Tom’s Cabin and had no notion of the real, actual horror of slavery. The idea of Black Pete as a servant and slave was an abstract one without hateful or denigrating connotations, it was just an interpretation that resolved this odd imagery associated with the Sint.
Black Pete is a curious figure in Dutch imagination. On the one hand, he’s a boisterous clown who dispenses candy, usually by flinging handfuls at kids with significant force. A good Pete is supposed to be a little scary; when they come to your classroom you’re torn between your desire to go and greet the Sint, and the instinct to hide behind your desk so you don’t lose an eye to a high-caliber sweet.
The Petes are also the Sint’s enforcers. While the goodholyman gets to focus on public relations and the pleasantries of gift-giving, the dark side of a naughty-nice list is left to the Petes. They carry switches, bundles of reeds for spanking, and hessian sacks which can be filled with presents and candy, but which are also used to stuff naughty children into. during the golden age of the Dutch merchant navy, parents warned their kids that Black Pete would put them in his bag and bring them to a pirate lair; later the punishment for naughiness was just to be taken back to the Sint’s lair in Madrid. Parents are unspecific as to what happens there.
Oh yes, Madrid. That’s where the Sint’s compound is, apparently. This is also a consequence of the post-puritan confusion about the Saint Nicholas mythology. Once Black Pete had been explained as a black slave, and it had been decided that a successful bishop like the Sint should probably have a whole host of them, it stood to reason that he should have his base of operations in a country known for its success in the black slave trade: Spain.
And with that assumption, the collective imagination was in the right ballpark: at least the Sint was Mediterranean.
The actual Bishop Nicholas, also known as Nikolaos o Thaumaturgos, Nicholas the Miracle-worker, was probably born in Patara in Asia Minor, and lived on the Turkish island of Myra in the fourth century. He was ordained at an early age by way of nepotism, as his uncle was a bishop (confusingly, also called Nicholas) in a neighboring community.
According to the histories, such as they are available, Nicholas showed himself to be a disciplined and pious servant of God. When he was invited to the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea he slapped the Berber priest Arius in the face for heretical notions about the non-divinity of Jesus and got himself sent to the basement dungeon, from which Mary herself apparently rescued him, thoughtfully returning his vestments while she was at it.
Nicholas was declared holy long after his death, and a variety of miracles are ascribed to him. He was supposed to have provided a dowry to a poor family to ensure that their daughters could marry, but if you’ll pardon my cynicism I don’t think that it’s very miraculous for an old priest to give some money to the father of some disenfranchised young women. In fact, it warrants investigation.
More impressive is the story of the three students who, in the style of Sweeney Todd, were murdered by an innkeeper, cut up for meat and then pickled in a barrel. Saint Nicholas put them back together and brought them back to life. Pretty badass.
A spotty history to be sure, but in the end what matters is that the Sint and the Petes are a colorful addition to the sober culture of Holland. In the weeks between his arrival and the sharing of presents, we follow him on televised news and in the newspaper. He has an annual interview with the prime minister to discuss the state of the nation and give the current executive branch some advice based on his centuries of managerial experience.
One of my favorite aspects of Sinterklaas is the surprise, pronounced sort of in the French way. Similar to Secret Santa, the tradition has kids and adults give presents to each other — but the present itself isn’t as important as the presentation. The surprise is the packaging, usually some arts-and-crafts concoction that fits the theme of the present. A hand-sewn cushion, or a papier-mâché bomb (don’t ask me why I made this, I don’t remember), that sort of thing. Once I helped my boyfriend make an intricate replica of the Santa Justa elevator in Lisbon for his mum.
This tradition encourages, and in fact outright requires, creativity, and that’s why I love it. Even when people forego the surprise, one absolutely immutable requirement for the Sinterklaas tradition is the poem. When the Sint delivers presents they’re always accompanied by a letter written in rhyming verse, which must be read aloud before the presents can be opened. When you give a gift to someone else, writing a good poem to go along with it is a great responsibility, to be taken very seriously.
And after all that, we find ourselves in the cold month of December.
We set out a hearty sandwich for the Sint and a nice big carrot for Amerigo, and put our shoe by the central heating, singing a couple of Sinterklaas songs before bedtime. In the morning, if we’ve been gooed, we’ll find some candy in there, or maybe an orange or a mandarin.
Spanish imports, don’t you know.
The name ‘Amerigo’ is quite recent, as it was the name of the police-horse ridden by Bram van der Vlugt, who portrayed the official Sinterklaas throughout my conscious lifetime. Amerigo carried the Sint during the second half of van der Vlugt’s twenty-year tenure. This period coincides with the saturation of Western culture with instant broadcast media, so it’s hardly a surprise that the horse who took over the role in 2011 also took the stage name Amerigo to avoid confusion.
When van der Vlugt first donned the tabard and mitre, he rode a variety of horses who all carried the name Jasper. His predecessor rode a horse stage-named Schimmel, rather unimaginative as that’s the Dutch word for a white dapple horse – or a fungal mould (Dutch vocabulary is compact and full of confusing homonyms). The horse’s actual name, I’m proud to discover, was Nico, also a police-horse.
Before that, a variety of horses served the Sint and would take a stage-name for the duration of their rider’s tenure. Bianca and Sasmona in the sixties and seventies, and Majestuoso from 1934 to 1958, with the exception of 1944. In the year of the hunger-winter, when the Nazi occupation and unusually brutal climate conspired to starve some twenty-thousand Dutch men and women.
In early 1945 the RAF and US Air Force began their respective imaginatively-named food drops: Operation Manna and Operation Chowhound. Travel through Holland was challenging, as the retreating German army had sabotaged many ports, bridges and dykes. A famous photo shows MANY THANKS spelled out in tulips in a field; the only way the Dutch could figure out to share their gratitude with the airmen who dropped sorely-needed food and supplies.
Later in 1945, the Canadian forces who liberated Holland provided supplies and support to reinstate the annual arrival Sinterklaas and bolster Dutch spirit, supplying twenty jeeps. Colonel Gilday thought that Sinterklaas was similar to Canadian Christmas and wanted to give the people of Amsterdam a spectacular celebration with sixteen Sints.
At the insistence of the Dutch interim government, reluctantly scrapped fifteen of them.