On December 5th, Sinterklaas (the festival of Saint Nicholas) is celebrated in the Netherlands. If you do any shopping or come into contact with small children over here it's pretty hard to avoid. Here's some stuff that I originally posted on the Well.

Sinterklaas. Based on the Roman Catholic Saint Nicholas, former bishop of Myra, the old gent has developed a life of his own.

Let me see. He lives at an undisclosed location in Spain for most of the year, except for the end of November, when he embarks on a steam boat and sails to the Netherlands. He is accompanied by his helpers, who are all youngish males and wear colourful 17th century costumes and blackface and who are all known as "black Peter". When not at sea, Sinterklaas rides a white horse.

When Sinterklaas is in the country, small children will put one shoe by the fire place (or, as the case may be, near a conveniently placed central heating radiator). The shoe will contain a large carrot, to be enjoyed by the horse. The first time around there's also a little list of presents the child would like to receive on December 5th. During the night these are replaced by some candy (there are specific kinds of candy that are only sold during this period) and maybe a small gift. Presumably Sinterklaas rides the rooftops during the night, and one of the black Peters gains access to the house through the chimney and makes the switch.

Sinterklaas' birthday is on December 6th. On the evening of December 5th a loud knocking on the door can be heard, and, when the door is opened, a gloved hand throws in a handful of "pepernoten" (one of the particular kinds of candy) and shoves in a bag of presents. Most of the presents are packed in a fanciful manner, designed to look like something else or to make them hard to unpack, and they come accompanied by a jocular verse discussing the recipient and their quirks. During the evening, one by one the presents are unpacked, the verses read and the gifts admired.

All of this provided, of course, that the child has been good during the year. Sinterklaas has a large book, in which a full status report on each child is being recorded. A bad child gets spanked with a bundle of twigs in stead of receiving candy or presents, and in the worst case it is carried off to Spain in the same bags that were used to bring the presents in.

On December 6th or so Sinterklaas sails off to Spain again, not to be heard from until the next year.

From a lunch time conversation with a colleague:

"...children's belief in Sinterklaas is unshakable. I've always told my children that Sinterklaas didn't exist and that I bought all the presents. They never believed me until they were nine or so..."

"...when Sinterklaas visits a school, it's not unusual for the person who's playing him to get into costume in front of the class, and quite often it's someone known to the children like a teacher or one of the children's fathers. Nevertheless, once the guy is fully in costume to the children he *is* Sinterklaas, and their belief in him is absolute..."

"...shops hire actors to play Sinterklaas, sit on a nice chair and have their picture taken together with the children. In busy shopping areas, it sometimes happens that two or three "Sinterklazen" are passing through the same street at the same time. This doesn't bother small children one bit. They instantly recognize one as the real thing and two as obvious counterfeits..."

"...my then four years old son once went to kindergarten dressed up as "Zwarte Piet" (Black Peter), complete with black make-up. His class mates knew who he was, but nevertheless were so terrified of him that he came home crying, demanding for the costume to be removed and the black make-up to be taken off..."

This text was first published on the Well in November, 2001.
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