Seasonal Holliday Attire: Christmas in the Netherlands


Figure 1.--This Dutch boy puts out his shoe with hay and a glass of water for Sinterklaas and Black Peter. Santa doesn't get cookies until he crosses the Atlantic. The boy in this 1949 magazine illustration wears a short pants sailor suit. At the bottom of the photograph a part of one of these songs is printed: Hier zet ik wat water, (Here I put some water,) Daar wat hooi voor 't paard, (Their some hay for the horse,) Want dat trouwe beestje (Because that faithful little horse) Is het heus wel waard! (Deserves that all really!)

America inherited one of its important Christmas traditions from Holland--Santa Claus. Sinterklaas as he is known in the Netherlands was St. Nicholas. The Dutch Sinterklaas is, however a bit different in the Netherlands and the children do not put out cookies. They put out hay and water. Also he has a black side kick, Black Peter, rather than elves to help him. Black Peter keeps tab on who has been naughty or nice. Also there are horses rather than reindeer. Black Peter has been criticised by some as not racially senstive, but that controversy appears to be abating. While the Dutch exported Sinterklaas to America, America after World War II exported Santa Claus back to the Dutch. This has meant a real bonanza to Dutch children who now have both Sinterklaas and Santa Claus and they get presents from both.

St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas or Sint Nikolaas is better known as Sinterklaas in the Netherlands. The original St. Nicholas was a Christian bishop in Myra, Turkey who renowned for his generosity. He is often pictured holding three bags of gold that symbolized the doweries he gave to the un-mairred daughters of an improvished merchant. That was indeed how the custom of hanging stockings came about. St. Nicholas reportedly tossed the bags of gold into the windows of the three sisters, one happened to fall into a stocking which was hanging by a fireplace to dry. While Sinterklaas was the inspiration for Santa Claus in America (notice the similarity) of the name, America developed a whole new mythology for Santa, entirely different than the St. Nicholas tradition. As a result, Dutch children who have adopted the American Santa Claus, see him as an entirely different person. Most have no idea that Santa is a relatively recent import from the United States.

Sinterklaas

St. Nicholas or Sinterklaas is key part of the Dutch Christmas. He is also the origin of the American Santa Claus. Sinterklaas visits the children with a bag full of presents. The figure of Sinterklaas is a curiously Catholic bishop (complete with a bishops hat and mitre) is this destinctly Calvinist country. It shows just how deeply rooted the Christmas celebration is in the Netherlands. Sinterklaas has no reindeer, but instead a horse. It is not, however, precisely a Christmas tradition as he comes on St. Nicholas Eve, 3 weeks before Christmas. The boy in the picture here puts a shoe filled with hay and a glass filled with water in front of the fire place (figure 1). This is an old tradition in the Netherlands. Hay and water are for the grey (horse) of Sinterklaas (St Nicholas). In the days before Sinterklaasavond (St Nicholas eve) on December 5, the children put there shoes in front of the fire place and sing their St Nicholas songs (sinterklaasliedjes). At the bottom of the photograph a part of one of these songs is printed: Hier zet ik wat water, (Here I put some water,) Daar wat hooi voor 't paard, (Their some hay for the horse,) Want dat trouwe beestje (Because that faithful little horse) Is het heus wel waard! (Deserves that all really!).

Black Peter

The Dutch Sinterklaas has Black Peter, a faithful but not always kind hearted, side kick rather than industrious little elves. Black Peter has, however, become controversial in recent years. The Black Peter tradition was once used to terrify Dutch children, although that has been much muted in today's more kid-friendly and politically correct era. It is believed Sinterklaas was imported from Spain where dark hued Moors once ruled, probably the origin of Black Peter. Perhaps these Spanish origins expalin why Sinterklaas is usually depicted like a Catholic bishop . When Sinterklaas visits, he checks with Black Peter whp apparently has detailed records revealing if the child had been good or not. If he had been good he gets the present, if not Black Peter spirits him off to Spain. Holland fought a protracted and brutal war with Catholic Spain for independence. Thus in the minds of the 16th and 17th century Dutch, Spain was the seat of evil--the worst place you could go. The Dutch have tried changing the Black Peter sidekick to a more politically correct white Peter or even yellow or red, but the Dutch public won't accept any change to their time-honored Christmas tradition. A Dutch reader in 2002 tells us, "The debate about the political correctness of Black Peter has abated somewhat of late and is not uncommon for black children from Curaçao and Surinam, and even children of Turkish and Moroccan parents, to join in the celebrations."

Variations

Dutch readers hav noted many variaions in how families celebrate the Sinterklaas tradition. In some families the fiction that Sinterklaas brings presents is carried even further than merely depositing them next to the chimney. Parents will stage a charade on St. Nicholas Eve and have an uncle or a friend of the family come in dressed up as Sinterklaas and actually deliver the presents in person. There will be a Zwartepiet/Black Peter too and the Holy Man will read from a book and mention to each child what he or she may have done wrong during the past year and usually gently admonish him to mend his ways. He would start with the younger children and gradually work his way upward. Crucial to this cerimony is that the younger children actually believe in Sinterklaas'. Many a family album shows pictures of the little ones on St. Nicholas' knee, either with a confident smile or afraid and weeping. When he goes on calling the older children there usually is some giggling and there are sideway glances and looks of understanding, for the distinction between those that 'believe' and those that 'do no longer believe' is a very important mark of growing up.

Presents

The Dutch tradition of giving presents at Christmas is not a recent one. A Dutch reader notes, "Gift giving is at least as old as my parents childhood 1920s-30s). There was no Father Christmas around and the giving was from person to person. Last Christmas, with 6 people at my home, there were 6 x 6 = 36 presents under the tree." A recent trend is Father Christmas as the supposed giver of these presents. The idea has yet to become widely accepted, however, and even today it is mainly a thing of tradesmen and shopkeepers'organizations who have been actively promoting it. Surprose is to be spelled surprise. Incidently the meaning of this French loan-word (pronunced surpreeze in both Dutch and French) has been narrowed almost exclusively to a present given at Sinterklaas in present day Dutch.

Rent-a-Sinterklaas

There are semi-professional Sinterklaas services were you can hire a Saint to come to your shopping centre and of course schools join in the fun too. So in the weeks before December 5 it is not unusal for a Sinterklaas and Zwartepiet to meet colleagues on the streets of many a Dutch city, and this of course is one of the things that sparks disbelief among the older children.

Sinterklaasavond (St. Nicholas Eve): December 5

Families across Holland will gather on St. Nicholas Eve to repeat the homespun rituals of Sinterklaas' impending arrival. The emphasis in Holland, however, is not on the gift, always referred to as a "surprose", but on creative wraping and especially on a poem that the gift giver is expected to compose. The poem is expected to be humerous and telling--a chance to tease and gently embarass family members and friends. One Dutchman explained, "It gives us the opportunity to tell the truth in a gentle way to our family and friends."

Santa Claus/Kerstman (Christmas): December 25

Some older Dutch people see Sinterklaas as under siege from a potent adversary--the American Santa Claus. Santa Claus is called “Kerstman” by Dutch children. I am not sure, but as far as I know, Santa Clause or “KerstMan” did not exist in the Netherlands before World War II. KerstMan has some advantages over interKlas. There is no need to wirk hard on composing a poem. All you have to do is wakeup Christmas Day an have at a pile of presents. Dutch children, however, do not see Santa Clause (Kerstman) as an adversary of Sinterklaas. Dutch children being no dummies, see Santa as a splendid addition to Christmas. Kerstman is now an integral part of Christmas in the Netherlands. Dutch children bombarded with American media have begun demanding presents for Christmas as well. As in America, Kerstman comes on Christmas Eve, thus this means another batch of presents to open on December 25. Presumably they are attracted by another bonamza of gifts, especially as Black Peter doesn't tag along with Kerstman to check if they had been good or not. We initially thought that Santa/Kerstman would replace SinterKlaas. Dutch children, however, had a differebnt take on the matter. For the children, the attitude seems to be the more gift givers the better. From a child's point of view Santa is just another bountiful individual.

Christmas Trees

Many Dutch families now have Christmas trees. I am not sure when trees became a Christmas tradition in the Netherlands, but uspect it was a German import. A reader writes, "When I was in the Netherlands (1959 to 1961), the Dutch people decorated Christmas Trees with candles instead of lights."

Jokes

The SinterKlaas tradition also leads to jokes by adults and cartoons in the papers (and on the internet).

Other Countries

Celebrating Sinterklaas is very much part of the Dutch national identity, and very important to expats. Dutch clubs overseas will celebrate it. A Dutch reader tells us, "I remember joining with the Belgians when we were staying in the Congo.It is alo celebrated in other countries.

Belgium and Northern France

Sinterklaas is not only a Dutch tradition, it is shared by the Belgians. It is a widespread tradition in Flanders and I have been told that the Wallonns celerbrate 'la Saint-Nicolas' too. It even spills over into neighbouring France though I don't know how far South it reaches. I have been supposing for a long time that the tradition was limited to the border region around Dunkirk that was a part of the medieval county of Flanders and spoke Dutch untill the beginning of the 20th century. However, just recently I became aware of the Scouts of Riaumont celebrating la Saint Nicolas, and they are in Picardy, which has been French speaking for times immemorial.

Indonesia

A report from Indonesia indicates that Sinterklaas was celebrated by those that had become acculturated with the Dutch untill the late Soekarno forbade it at the time of the New Guinea dispute (Chinese New Year celabrations were to become forbidden a few years later, as would be the publishing of Chinese newspapers and Chinese language shop signs with the excuse that they wanted to quell the influence of Communist China but in reality with a view to force the Chinese into assimilating with the indigenous peoples).

South Africa

Curiously, the Dutch who emigrated to South Africa and gave birth to the Afrikaner nation have lost the tradition of SinterKlaas. it is virtually unknown in that country.

Personal Comments

A Dutch reader tells us, "Sinterklaas (December 5) always was more important than Christmas in the Netherlands. It is a real Volksfeest, celebrated by the entire nation, whether Protestant, Catholic or non-religious. That Black Peter is ... well, black ... is an old tradition and has nothing to do with racism, colonialism, or whatever. I believe the Dutch have proved themselves through history to be fairly tolerant in all aspects of society that they don't need to be afraid now of not being politically correct in the case of Sinterklaas still showing up with a black servant. Some things need not to be changed!"

A younger Dutch reader writes, "Our Santa Claus is called in Dutch “Kerstman”. The guy with Black Peter is called Sinterklaas. Both events happen in December, December 5th and December 25th. But they are two different people and two different events. Santa Claus here is the same Santa Claus as seen on tv, and in the American movies. I’m twenty-three years old. And as far as I know there have been both, Santa Claus and sinterklaas." -- Patrick

Sources

Colaianni, Marie-Louise. E-mail message March 2, 2004.






HBC






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Created: December 27, 1998
Last updated: 12:01 AM 1/1/2009