Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet
When my DH and I were in Amsterdam last month, we encountered a Christmas celebration at the Church of St. Maarten in Utrecht. The picture at the left shows Zwarte Piet, the Dutch equivalent of Santa’s helper. (Behind the garishly dressed little gift giver, you can see my Dutch friends Alfke, Nynke and Asbjorn having a great time!)
Nynke explained that St. Nicholas comes to the Netherlands each year on December 6th to leave gifts in children’s shoes. Of course, good children receive good gifts and bad ones find only switches and lumps of coal in theirs. The historical St. Nicholas was the bishop of Myra (part of present day Turkey), but in Dutch tradition, he comes not from the North Pole, but from Spain! And his helpers aren’t elves. They are Moors.
Nynke says the Dutch news media has a great time reporting on emSinterKlaas’s/em progress toward Holland. His ship is often lost at sea or threatened with delay, but somehow, he always manages to arrive in time.
The children obviously love Zwarte Piet, and his smiling face was in all the stores as a reminder to parents that the Feast of St. Nicholas was coming. (It’s an ill tradition that doesn’t blow a spending windfall into the economy.)
The custom of Sinterklaas bringing gifts is an old one. When we visited the Rijkmuseum (a fabulous collection of Dutch masters!) we saw this painting by Jan Steen called the emFeast of St. Nicholas/em. Like our Santa Claus, Sinterklaas keeps a book in which he records the deeds of children and bases their gifts on what’s written there. The little girl in the foreground clutches her lovely new doll while a boy to the left knuckles his eyes to swipe away tears. He was obviously a naughty child who received only switches and coal.
I’m always fascinated by how Christmas is celebrated in other cultures. My husband’s family is Norwegian, so that means they have emlefsa (a delicious potato-based flat bread)/em and emlutefisk (codfish stored in lye, then smothered in butter once it’s cooked so it will slither down your throat on its own. It’s something of a rite of passage.)
Does your family incorporate any elements from other lands into your celebration? Any special recipes or traditions you’d like to share?