Friday, December 5, 2008

What's in a name?

"That which we call Sinterklaas, By any other name would be as Jolly." Although 'Santa Claus' derived from 'Sinterklaas' by the Dutch immigrants who were living in New Amsterdam (now New York), all the Dutch here say that he is two and completely separate individuals. Either way, he/they started out as the same person: Saint Nicholas. He was a generous Greek Bishop, born in what is now Turkey. His legend has lived on, but before he turned into Santa Claus, he was... and still is, known as Sinterklaas.

Being from German heritage, we celebrated Saint Nicholas day (December 6th) growing up. As kids we'd stick our shoes outside the night before, and received candy in the morning. Later on, Saint Nicholas would stick the candy inside our stockings (a. they were much cleaner, and b. they were MUCH bigger!). The Dutch go one step farther.
In the middle of November, Sinterklaas arrives by boat from Spain with his helpers named Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). In the days of Saint Nicholas, three small boys were sentenced to death for a crime they didn't commit. Bishop Nicholas saved them all, and they decided to stay with him, helping him go down the chimney and jumping on rooftops to deliver presents. It's said that the reason his helpers are black is because of the soot from the chimneys, so no, there are no racial connotations.

From then on, the country is abuzz with Sinterklaas activities, all building up for the 5th, which is Sinterklaasavond (Sinterklaas Eve). Many children today still stick their shoes by the fireplace the night of the 5th, which is the only part of the tradition I'm used to, and receive presents on the 6th. However, the more common tradition is a bit different. After the singing Sinterklaas songs on the evening of the 5th, there will be a loud knock on the door or the window, and a sack full of presents is found on the doorstep, or next to the chimney.
Many families only exchange presents on Sinterklaasavond in place of Christmas... others do both. Adults join in on the fun by writing poems about each other which poke a bit of fun of the person they're writing about. That's exactly what my team did at work. In November we drew names, since the poems are supposed to be anonymous, and read them aloud today. Obviously the one I wrote wasn't anonymous since it was in English, but I'm still not admitting I'm the one who wrote it.

I'm sure I gained a few pounds today after eating all the pepernoten (Sinterklaas cookies), chocolate covered shortbread cookies, and gingerbread cupcakes that were part of the celebration. Plus, Sinterklaas had stopped by my managers house and dropped off chocolate letters for us all, which we received after reading aloud the poems which were written for us.

On my way home from work I watched as a mom pointed to the window of their home for her son to see Zwarte Piet's hat caught on the windowsill. The boy looked at the window incredulously, his eyes as wide as saucers. Then this evening my upstairs neighbors came down to visit. They said that Sinterklaas had left a present for me in the sack Zwarte Piet dropped off to them. So they brought me the present (another chocolate letter) along with homemade pepernoten. Yummy.


jkribbit said...

How fun! I knew a lot of the history - but some of it was new. Thank you for sharing!

Angelfish said...

Happy Sinterklaas Claire! I just have to tell you that Black Pete scared me to death when I was little - we were always taught that if we were naughty he would put us in a sack and take us back to Spain with him! As much as I loved Sinterklaas and getting chocolate letters - I was also terrified I was going to wake up in Spain! :)