Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sinterklaas is coming tonight.

 Though, actually, he has been in the country for some 3 weeks now, when he made his official arrival in the dutch cities that still have a harbor, because legend says, he comes in a steam boat. Nevertheless, tonight is the night where children leave their shoes by the chimney and hope for him to bring them little presents. The origins of this figure are not clear but some historians have seen parallels between him and the Nordic god Odin. Both ride a white-gray magic horse, and have black helpers, ravens in the case of Odin, and Zwarte Pieten in the case of Sinterklaas. However the celebration on the 6 of December honours Saint Nicholas, who is also the patron saint of Amsterdam.

"Saint Nicholas was a Greek bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey. In 1087, his relics were furtively taken to Bari, in southeastern Italy; for this reason, he is also known as Nikolaos of Bari. Bari later formed part of the Spanish Kingdom of Naples, because it was previously conquered in 1442 by Alfonso V of Aragon. The city thus became part of the Kingdom of Aragon and later to Spain, until the eighteenth century. Due to the fact that the remains of St. Nicholas were in Bari (then a Spanish city), is this tradition that St. Nicholas comes from Spain."(1)
 Sinterklaas is always surrounded by his mischievous and (nowadays controversial) helpers. They go around the city throwing candy, mandarins and pepernoten (small cinnamon, clove and ginger cookies) to well behaved children. They also go into houses through the chimney and leave giant chocolate letters for the kids. There are many legends surrounding these characters:

 "The oldest explanation is that the helpers symbolize the two ravens Hugin and Munin who informed Odin on what was going on. In later stories the helper depicts the defeated devil. The devil is defeated by either Odin or his helper Nörwi, the black father of the night. Nörwi is usually depicted with the same staff of birch (Dutch: "roe") as Zwarte Piet. Another, more modern story is that Saint Nicolas liberated an Ethiopian slave boy called 'Piter'  from a Myra market, and the boy was so grateful he decided to stay with Saint Nicolas as a helper."(2)

Moreover, in the middle ages "Piet" was a common name for the devil.  In this context, yet another story recalls that on the eve of Saint Nicholas day, he triumphed over the devil, made him his slave and forced him to do good by bringing joy and happiness to children.
"New Year's Hymn to St. Nicholas," colonial Dutch life, 1881
 Another funny fact is that Sinterklaas is most probably the origin of the tradition of Santa Claus. "From the late sixteenth century inwards,  North America, which had not yet been colonized by the Spanish and the Portuguese lay open to other European conquerors, who hoped to find there the same riches the Iberians had found in Central and South America. Thus at the mouth of the Hudson river the Dutch established a colony trading post. From 1629 on a number of Dutch families moved inland, creating several extensive states. A number of cities and villages bear witness to this episode as does some of the Dutch-style architecture. New York  was first founded by the Dutch on Manhattan island, and aptly named New Amsterdam. It had its "wall", hence "wall-street", and nearby, they founded another village called "Breukelen", hence "Brooklyn". (3)
Illustration by Alexander Anderson, 6 december 1810
During this period the Dutch settlers tried to import their traditons, folklore and festivities. "In New York, in 1810  John Pintard published a pamphlet with illustrations of Alexander Anderson in which he called for making Saint Nicholas patron Saint of New York and to start a Sinterklaas tradition. He was apparently assisted by the Dutch, because in his pamphlet he included an old Dutch Sinterklaas poem with English translation. In the Dutch poem, Saint Nicholas is referred to as 'Sancta Claus' " (4)
 And us? Well, we love cookies (both the boy and I were nicknamed cookie-monster in our respective families) and we use whatever excuse that comes in our way to get our hands on chocolate. Except of course, we do everything last minute and by the time we went to get our chocolate letters yesterday, there were no A's or M's left, so we had to settle with a Q. I'll let you know if the Sint left anything in my shoe by tomorrow morning.

(1). From here. 
(2) From here 
(3). A Short History of the Netherlands: From Prehistory to the Present Day. Prof. dr. P.J. Rietbergen. Bekking & Blitz Uitgevers b.v., Amersfoort.
(4)Saint Nicholas and the origin of Santa Claus. Article by the St. Nicholas Center.  

Post edit: I received an email from Drs. Johan Nijhof, specialist in Netherlandistics, who was so kind as to add a few more pieces to the puzzle and origins of this tradition: 

"Not only in mediaeval times, but even in the mid 19th century "Zwarte Piet" was used as a devil’s name. Proof thereof is a story published in "Vlissingsche Courant" from 1845, Keizer Karel en Kwade Bette. I cite: "Ik geloof, zeide Kwade Bette, dat Zwarte Piet het `n ingeeft om mij zo te kwellen" (I believe, that Black Pete prompted him to harass me like that).

At the site of Meertens Instituut, there is a long article from Eugenie Boer, who mentions a mediaeval text about "nickertgens", who accompany Sinterklaas. Nikker has  become an invective, just like in English nicker, but has another origin than nigger. The old form was ikker, the word for a bad spirit, the male form of nixe, mermaid (or sereia, if that helps). Wodan (the Dutch form for Odin) had his escort ghost, who is sometimes named Eckehard, where you can recognize Icker, just like "Old Nick", as a devil’s name. Typical, that Nick is also short for Nicholas. The little devils are also part of the St Nicholas-tradition in Chechia, where he has a (white) angel too.

To me it seems, that Jan Schenkman de-ghosted Sinterklaas (who at the end oft he 18th century came with chains, then very fashioned for all ghosts, and stripped Zwarte Piet from his develish traits too, just for pedagogic reasons. As far as Zwarte Piet was seen as a black slave, like black pages were custom for the very rich in Europe, he made him a servant, maybe for the same reason. Slavery had been abolished in Europe (1815 for the second time), unfortunately without effect on the colonies.

Mrs. Boer also mentioned a merchant, who writes in 1793 about himself, disguised as Sinterklaas, and rattling with chains, how he scared his wife and had a lot of fun that way. As a child, in 1828, recalls a famous Dutch author, Alberdingk Thijm, he visited a Sinterklaaspary at an ambassadors home. The host had a black servant (eenen kroesharigen neger), whom Sinterklaas called "Pieter me knecht".

De Genestet, a well-known poet in the 30s of the 19th century, who was a vicar, made an epic poem as a student "De Sint-Nicolaasavond", in which he describes how the king whishes to present all his friends with knighthood decorations. His servant Floor (The finance and later prime minister was Floris van Hall) had a big bag, but therein came a hole, so all the decorations landed in the hands of the wrong people (very realistic). So a poem plays a role in that time (just around 1845). So do the chocolate letters. I would refer to the fact that Wodan (the Dutch name is Wodan, not Odin) "found" the runes in an act of self-sacrifice, the characters of the germanic people, before they adopted the latin fount. As far as I know, this tradition is unique.

The 19th century is the craddle of many traditions, Santa Lucia in Sweden (the melody of the song „Mörkret går tunga fjätt rund gård och stuva“ is Italian, our Dutch midwinterhoorn (meedweenterhoorn in Twenthe) came from Switzerland. And so Santa Claus came to the USA

Johan Nijhof also recently published an article on the subject at a blog from the newspaper Trouw.


  1. Ooh, interesting!

    I was aware of some of the mythology surrounding Sinterklaas, but you've unearthed many more stories. Thanks for the fascinating read!

  2. Que problemitas con Sinter!!!
    Esta gente, que la tradición y la cosa y se han saltado todas las tradiciones. Sinter ha paseado por todos los pueblos cualquier día menos el 5. Los regalos se han repartido cualquier día, menos el 5. Los zapatos se han puesto cualquier día, menos el 5.
    Y después mi suegra me dice que no puedo montar mi arbólito antes del 5, porque en esa fecha es que llega tradicionalmente Sinter con sus Zwarte Pietten!
    Ja! Además, tanto revuelta con los de los negritos y cosa! El racismo y vaya ud. a saber que más!
    En la tradición de Santa Claus no hay tanto problema. Viene el 24 en la noche, deja los regalos y listo! Nadie más sabe de él hasta el próximo año! jejejeje

    Más allá de mi descontento tradicional, tu información está interesante. Como siempre!

    Felíz Sinteklaas!

  3. Mmmm nuevas tradiciones para mi cabeza, me encanta conocerlas. Jaja ya quiero ver a mi mamá esperando hasta después del 5 para poner su árbole y mil adornos navideños.

    Me encanta conocer las culturas, creo que me pondré a averiguar un poco más.

    Entonces Feliz Sinteklass?

  4. @thesmittenimmigrant, no problem . I love history, and I like to know the origins, the legends behind the traditions, superstitions, beliefs, so I tried to read a bit... and put it together.

    @Ley, si es que se supone que llega como 3 semanas antes y entre tanto se la pasa desfilando, y los regalos se supone que son hoy en la noche. Lo de cuando ponen el arbol no me queda muy claro, pero la gente en el trabajo estaba comentando que en comparacion con otros paises aqui decoran las calles mucho menos, no hay mercaditos de navidad... en fin. Feliz Sinterklaas.

    @ Zarawitta, si es curioso, a mi me encanta saber el origen de todo. Y si, en Mexico es mas o menos entre el 8 y el 12 que se pone todo no? Coincidiendo con las posadas ? Y gracias ;)

  5. Oh! Never heard of such tradition! thank you for this! :)
    So, what the Q stands for? Have you decided? :D

  6. @Ines, yeah, it was new to me as well. The Q... I don't know, all I can think of is question ? quick?


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