Monday, December 3, 2012

Today I learned about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet

Posted by Daniexmachina

Today I learned about Sinterklaas and the Dutch traditions for Christmastime. I decided in honor of the holiday season, to learn about how people in other countries enjoy their Christmas and how their Santa Claus works. So take a break from stringing up the lights and get your eggnog, it's time to learn! Sinterklaas is said to have the biggest influence on how we got our Santa Claus. You can see the similarity in the name and he looks the most like our Santa. The Dutch tradition has Sinterklaas in the robes of a holy man and wearing a bishop's hat, but when he was modernized and brought to America, he lost the holy connections. Even in the Netherlands, the tradition has changed through the years. 

Sinterklaas likely began with the Norse legend of Odin. Similarities between the two include both riding through the sky on a horse and carrying a staff or spear.  The helpers of Sinterklaas are mischievous with black faces. This is similar to Odin's ravens  Hugin and Munin who acted as his informants. Sinterklaas also drew from the myth of Saint Nicholas. Because his remains were buried in Spain, he was said to be from there and had a black helper who was shown as a Morisco pageboy. In Spain, St. Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors as well as children, thus he arrives by steamboat in the Dutch legend. Because of the traditional depiction of St. Sara Lee Nicholas, Sinterklaas is said to have many mischievous helpers with black faces and Moorish clothing called "Zwarte Pieten" (Black Petes). When the legend arose, Zwarte Piete was a name for evil, a symbol of the devil placed in a position where he must help. Although with the passing of time, the racial connotations showed through. 

During the Middle Ages, a feast was held on December 6th for the children in honor of Sinterklaas. At the feast, money was put in children's shoes which led to the later tradition of putting presents in shoes. The feast became a wild scene of debauchery, similar to Carnival. It featured costumes, role-reversal and mass drunkenness. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Netherlands became largely Protestant and banned the celebration of Sinterklaas. The Southern part of the Netherlands as well as Catholic students in Amsterdam protested and practice was allowed at a family level. 

By the 19th century, Sinterklaas became widely accepted again. A schoolteacher named Jan Schenkman illustrated a children's book which depicted Sinterklaas taking presents down the chimney, riding a horse through the sky and coming from Spain on steamboat, which at the time was marvelously new. In this new incarnations of the story, Sinterklaas' medieval devil helpers were replaced with a black boy he called Zwarte Piet. This boy helped Sinterklaas and traveled with him. 

These days, Sinterklaas' arrival to the country is now televised and following that, all towns with docks have a local arrival via boat as well. Any place without a dock has him arrive on horse, train or carriage. Many people dress up as Zwarte Pieten, still with traditional black face makeup, because of the original legend of the Zwarte Piet who stayed with Sinterklaas because Sinterklaas freed him from slavery. Of course with the politically correct police patrolling, this has been changed to say his face is black from soot because he is the one to go down chimneys to deliver presents or coal.

On the eve of St. Nicholas Day, called Pakjesavond, the children still place a shoe, calling back to the original medieval feast! The children put a treat for Sinterklaas' horse in their shoe, such as hay, a carrot or an apple and on the next day they find candy or small presents in their shoe. On the evening of that day, the main presents arrive mysteriously somehow, depending on families. Sometimes a note will be found explaining where the gifts were hidden in the house, or a neighbor may knock on the door and leave the sack of presents. 

The entire Dutch family enjoys something like a Secret Santa within their family. They give a special gift called a surprise for their family member. These gifts come with a Sinterklaas poem which is usually a silly poem that pokes fun at the family member. The gifts are cleverly disguised for the recipient. 

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are depicted as carrying a bag of candy for the good children and a chimney sweep's broom for swatting the bad children. Although in older Sinterklaas songs, they say that Zwarte Piet would take the bad children back to Spain in the sack. So look out kiddies, Zwarte Piet is coming for you! Gelukkig kerstfeest!


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