I can tell that Christmas is on its way by the dramatic increase of Christmas lights and home-made mulled wine pictures on my Facebook newsfeed. Personally I am not in a Christmas mood at all. Not to rain on anyone’s parade or to be all scrooge-like I am just not that touched by Christmas. In fact, I never believed in Santa Claus and I can’t really remember my parents making an effort in convincing me of the opposite.
Does that sound like a tad bit of an unhappy childhood? Well, yes, if Santa Claus was all there was. Luckily, that wasn’t the case in good old Holland. We had something much more spectacular: Sinterklaas. This holiday is so widely spread in the Netherlands that once a year the public channel even broadcasts Sinterklaas’ arrival on national television. You might frown upon this massive adult conspiracy, but trust me: kids love it.
Just to get some facts straight: Sinterklaas is NOT the Dutch name for Santa Claus. They are completely and utterly distinct from each other in a significant number of ways:
1: they might be celebrated in the same month but Sinterklaas’ day is the 5th of December, way before Santa and his helpers make their way down to our homes.
2: They look completely different: Santa Claus is overweight and has a slightly red complexion that makes you wonder about his drinking habit. Sinterklaas is quite the opposite; he is tall and slender with a magnificently holy air around him.
3: Their choice of residence is also quite telling: Santa Claus lives on the North Pole (very cold, very far), Sinterklaas, on the other hand, lives in sunny Spain.
4: Their choice of transportation could also have not been more different: Santa Claus hops-or rather pulls- himself into his sled pulled by reindeers and prefers to travel by air. Sinterklaas takes a more grounded approach: he arrives in the Netherlands by steamboat and when having to make his rounds he gets on his loyal white horse and gracefully treads on the roofs of houses to throw presents down the chimney.
5: The way in which we celebrate these two holidays is also quite different. With Sinterklaas you enter a lottery and whomever you draw becomes your responsibility. You write them a poem (preferably one that highlights all their failings and oddities of the past year) and you buy him or her a small present.
Of course this is the grown up version. When we were younger one of Sinterklaas’ helpers would knock on the door and come into the house throwing candy around (at the dismay of my mum) and with a huge sack of presents. I would always have mixed feelings about the sack because rumour had it that if you’d been naughty you would be put into the sack and shipped to Spain. Retrospectively, that doesn’t seem like the worst thing that could happen.
6: I bet so far Sinterklaas has sounded pretty good, right? Well, hold that thought and don’t be put off by the following difference because this is where things might get a little tricky, Sinterklaas and Santa Claus have quite different helpers. Santa Claus’ helpers are elves. I have nothing bad to say about them. I quite like these supernatural beings, Santa Claus could have done much worse.
Let us move now to Sinterklaas’ helpers. Sinterklaas’ helpers are called ‘zwarte piet’ which literally means ‘black pete’. They are often people who have painted their faces black and assist Sinterklaas in distributing presents and sweets. The tricky part is explaining this to foreigners without making it sound racist. In my opinion it really isn’t racist, but I can understand how the thought might cross ones mind.
But what makes zwarte pieten superior to elves is that there is a division of labour amongst them. For instance, you have Pieten who write poems, Pieten who play music, Pieten who hand out presents and you even have Pieten that are notorious for their naughtiness. As far I know elves all just do the same thing: packing and handing out presents.
7. Lastly, for anyone with a sweet tooth Sinterklaas is the perfect holiday. Once a year the supermarkets are filled with the most delicious sweets on the continent. For anyone who knows a Dutch person: ask them about ‘kruidnoten’ or better yet; demand a bag of kruidnoten: it’s Sinterklaas after all.
As you can imagine by now, I am too excited about Sinterklaas to be even thinking of Santa Claus. This week I am going to write my poems and buy the presents. The only thing that has left me worrying is that the people I am celebrating it with are quite clueless about Sinterklaas. Past experience has taught me that the idea of Sinterklaas still leaves all the non-Dutch residents of the world puzzled. Let’s hope for the best this year.