Sunday, November 19, 2006

Why we have such a brief Christmas season

Every year mid-November Sint Nicolaas, aka Sinterklaas, gathers his colourful assistants around him and travels by steamboat all the way from his episcopal palace in Spain to the Dutch and Flemish*) children he loves so dearly.

The good old holy man needs his huge army of helpers because the period from mid-November to His birthday on December 5 **) is a very busy period.
Mind you, the long journey over sea is only the beginning. His official arrival in Holland is a very elaborate affair with a cacophony of ship's hooters, singing children, a speech by the mayor and a ride on the white horse across the city to greet as many children as possible.

But then the real work has yet to begin. Every night when the children are asleep he gets on his horse and rides over the rooftops (!!!) to deliver small presents through the chimneys for children who have been good. Don't get me wrong, his assistants lower themselves through said chimneys and do they moan and complain? Not at all, they don't notice the difference because they are all black! Once in the house the Zwarte Pieten (every assistant is called Piet, pron. Pete***)) collect the carrot children have put in their shoe as a treat for the horse and a small present takes its place.

Now you may wonder how does Sinterklaas know if a child has been good or bad? He has his huge book with the names of all children in it and a brief description of their characteristics. Easy.
The Zwarte Pieten carry heavy bags that have two functions. On arrival they are full of sweets and presents, and when empty come in handy to take bad children to Spain, a country from which, as we all know, there is no return.****)

December 5 it is time for the actual celebration of Sinterklaas's Birthday.
This takes place in the evening and there is no employer who refuses their staff a few hours off early to be able to have a proper pakjesavond (boxing evening).

Hot chocolate and all sorts of traditional sweets are served, the children and grownups alike sing Sinterklaas songs, and then there is a knock on the door (we sing "Hear Who Knocks There, Children?"). If Sint can find the time he comes to deliver the presents personally, reads what he knows about the children (and grownups too), is served a glass of Dutch genever and then hurries on to his next assignment. If he can't stop by personally he just delivers the bag, knocks on the door and is around the corner before you can say Pietjepuk (Dutch for Jack Robinson).

So this is in brief the traditional Sinterklaas celebration in Holland. No wonder the shops where the Good Holy Man buys the presents, know better than to start the Christmas frenzy before December 5. Sinterklaas would be deeply offended and that just would not do, would it?...

Before saying Sinterklaas looks very old please remember two things:
firstly his age is counted in the hundreds of years and secondly he can be very impatient about grownups whose vices are written in his book.
Sorry I had to pinch this image, only small children and a tv crew were allowed to come near the good holy man.

PS Of course this is a nationalistic view. For an unbiased description of the Sinterklaas phenomenon read Invader Stu's blog on the same subject.

*) Te Flemish area includes a tiny bit of northern France, where some still speak what is essentially the Netherlands language - and many celebrate Sinterklaasfeest.
**) Some claim the correct date is December 6.
***)The In the Basement concert was on December 5, 2005. It featured Rachel Fuller and Pete Townshend - there is no such thing as coincidence, Dale.
****)Unconfirmed rumour has it that bad children are used as base material for the special Sinterklaas treats called "pepernoten". I personally think this story was invented to stimulate good behaviour.

The welcome to the steamboat from Spain is a noisy affair.


gypsy noir said...

ahh koos i feel like you have just read a bedtime story..ive not heard of that santa before..i have this santa from norway and he looks like pure evil.i beat him up every christmas because he wants me to..i think id be on the "pepernoten" list though mind..and you know santa is an anagram for satan..hmmm..

VallyP said...

Perfect, Koosje!!!! What a beautiful post ;-)

Lannio said...

A lovely post Koos. I actually printed it here at work and shared your culturally similar, yet different tradition with colleagues.

Although I was away this week-end, friends young and old who stayed in town watched this year's version of Toronto's Santa Claus parade. Santa Claus has proudly paraded the streets of Toronto once a year since 1905. According to friends - this year he invited friends including Clifford, the Big Red Dog, Barbie and Ariel from the Little Mermaid.

Fantastic to see how some cultures are similar, yet subtally different. I suppose these events do mark the beginning of the Christmas season!

Oh and welcome back!

Koos F said...

Three absolutely lovely comments, this is a wonderful day.
Extra star for Lannio, what an honour to be read by your colleagues!

So now it is official: Dale the Spokeswoman, Lannio the Publicity Agent!

Anonymous said...

When I played your video, Honeybear (my dog), who is snuggled up next to me in my chair, jumped about a foot! LOL. 'Tis quite noisy; but the harbor is beautiful and the children must come running down to the water to see Sinterklaas arrive.

Thank you for your lovely post. It's so interesting and refreshing to learn about how other countries/cultures ring in the Christmas season. Sinterklaas birthday sounds like fun. Does he come back on the 24th, or winter solstice, as well?

Here in the US, merchants are also trying hard not to disappoint. The turkeys are frightened this week and a great many Americans will be stuffed to the gills and shopped until dropped by Sunday.

Seems to me that each year it feels more like the meaning of Thanksgiving is getting lost in the commercialism of preparing for Christmas. Santa Claus had a line two stores deep at the mall last Saturday. It starts earlier every year and it's just not right.

Except for the family time, good food and a couple of days off work, I think I like your way of ringing in the Christmas holidays better!

Dale said...

That is such an interestingly parallel tradition to our celebration of Christmas on December 25.

Here Santa does all the chimney-sliding himself and we leave carrots for his reindeer... not to mention milk and cookies for the old guy.

I can't imagine eating a treat made from naughty children...

And I am flattered to find my name in the same sentence as Pete Townshend and Rachel Fuller!
That cannot possibly be a coincidence!

And Gypsy, I would trust that you would notice that certain anagram...

Thanks for the insight to your Holiday!

Dale said...

I can't imagine eating a treat made from good children, either...

Koos F said...

To make the confusion complete, after Dec 5 the shops are put in Christmas mode overnight. Some even abandon Sinterklaas for Santa Claus. These things are just adopted, just like halloween is gradually coming up.

Beautiful profile pic, Dale and yes, it was all meant to be.

Erik-Jan said...

Hi Koos,
Very nice post. Sure in Rotterdam everything is on a much larger scale then here in Naarden.
Our Sinterklaas also arrives on a ship so we are working hard to get the last details right. We have to clear the harbour before friday and disguise the tourboats in some spanish look. In the meantime the final 'historic harbour' plans are revealed at . It includes nice artist impressions of the near future. For this moment, and that really is a pity, we are only allowed to use one side of the harbour. And also dissapointing, no-one is allowed to live on this ships. But there is a start and a lot to wish for in the future.

Koos F said...

Hi Erik-Jan
Maybe you'll publish Sinterklaas's grand arrival pictures in Naarden? Must be cute, everything on a small town scale.
Good to see the drawings of the historic harbour in the making, congratulations!
For those who want to look it up on Google Earth, copy
52°17'47.91"N 5° 9'37.39"E
to the 'fly to' window and enter.

Mary Beth said...

Hi Koos,

What an interesting post! I guess the Dutch Sinterklaas is like the North American Santa Clause in many ways, yet different in so many ways too...the birthdate, for instance (nobody mentions Santa's birthday here...they only care about the presents *L*), and the shipping of bad children off to Spain, where there is no return (hilarious - I love that!).

I also love how Sinterklaas' assistants deliver the gifts...I mean, why should the big man himself have to do all the grunt work? Here, Santa Claus himself comes down the chimney with the presents and eats cookies and milk the children leave for him, something I always found strange, due to Santa's ample girth. It makes much more sense for black-clad assistants to do this job. *L*

Great post!

Anonymous said...

Koos --

Thanks for your Sinterklaas story. It is nice to know about the traditions back in Holland and the activities of my distant relatives. I have shared your story with my family here in the USA.

Peter Fernhout Hollings

E.L. Wisty said...

He looks very familiar, quite like Santa Claus who lives in Finnish Lapland (those others who live in Greenland and such places and claim to be the real deal are impostors). Any relation I wonder?


jillytee said...

Koos, long time no post ! that goes for me as well, Your Sinterklass is interestesting but I'm confused do you have Chistmas on Dec 25th as well ????
We have had a very busy time following Rachel and The Who to NY and LA, check out my blog and Marks for pics

Dale said...

There's a friend that I know of named Koos

His certain way with words is verbose

Though I don't know his house

But I see through my mouse

And I know that he can't paint his toes?

I'm struggling right now, but just ask Margie...

Invader Stu said...

I was able to watch Sinterklass arriving by boat for the first time this year. It's amazing the amount of work they put into the tradition for the children.

Dale said...

Koos, I was able to watch the harbour scene at work.

Very noisy!

rudolf said...


Metalchick said...

Hi Koos,
Very interesting story! I know each country has their own Santa story, but it still amazes me about how Christmas is a universal holiday.
I watched the video, and you weren't kidding about the noise! I had to turn the volume down on my speakers, and it wasn't even up in the first place!

Anne-Marie said...

I loved reading this post.

Are the peppernoten similar to German pfeffernussen? Just curious. And hungry now.


erik-jan. said...

Hi Koos,
A little late response to this old post. But in Google Earth, right on my roof:
52°17'38.36"N 5° 9'41.38"E