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.