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?

13 thoughts on “Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet

  1. MiaMarlowe says:

    I actually ran across a comparison of Santa and Odin this week. Both travel by magical means. Santa drives a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. Odin rides a six legged horse. And both are depicted as wise old men.

  2. Nynke says:

    The role of Zwarte Piet has been the subject of some debate in Holland as well. Celebrating a saint with a legion of black helpers (there are oftne many Zwarte Pieten) is an uncomfortable reminder of a time when our country got rich on trading not just spices but also slaves, and some descendants of those slaves take offence.

    Still, the tradition is too strong here to let Zwarte Piet go; we’d all really miss him if he were gone! A popular story about Zwarte Piet is that he’s not actually an African but rather a local covered in soot (since he delivers presents through the chimney) – my private opinion is that that started as damage control. And then there’s the theory that Sinterklaas and his black helpers descended from the Norse god Odin and his ravens, Huginn and Muninn…

  3. MiaMarlowe says:

    Mary Anne–I was surprised by Zwarte Piet because he would be so controversial here in the US. However, I’ve traveled enough to know most people don’t care how we do things here and our sensibilities aren’t necessarily theirs. That isn’t a judgment. It’s just a fact. Still I wondered if any black Netherlanders are offended by the depiction of a fellow in blackface…

  4. Mary Anne Landers says:

    Thank you for the write-up and pictures, Mia; and everyone for the comments.

    I mentioned elsewhere on this blog that I lived in The Netherlands between age 11 and 13. I clearly remember Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).

    Much later, I would reflect on the implications of this tradition. As any history of Christmas can tell you, the Dutch Sinterklaas would eventually be borrowed by Americans and modified a bit, to emerge as Santa Claus. But Zwarte Piet didn’t make the cut.

    That’s odd because our culture includes many instances of a European-American focal figure with a sidekick from another ethnic group. Huck Finn and Jim. Ishmael and Queequeg. The Lone Ranger and Tonto. The Green Hornet and Kato. Jack Benny and Rochester. And of course, Scarlett O’Hara and Mammy.

    So Zwarte Piet should have fit right in as Black Pete . . . but for some reason he didn’t. And nowadays such a role would be condemned as politically incorrect. Certainly it would be a throwback to the not-so-good old days.

    So in America there’s just the fat guy in a red and white suit, helped by elves with no names. But that seems to be enough.

    Keep up the good work!

  5. MiaMarlowe says:

    Jane–Wow, that’s some pickle story! Of course, there’s no telling what someone will crave. Remember Ben Gunn from Treasure Island (“Many’s the night I’ve dreamed of cheese…”)

  6. MiaMarlowe says:

    Nynke–How cool that you recognized the traditional holiday treats in that painting. I guess the reason they’re traditional is because they’re good enough to stand the test of time.

    About the spices–This painting was done at the height of Holland’s Golden Age. Along with England and Spain, the Netherlands ruled the seas. Her merchants brought the wealth of nations (including exotic spices!) back to her shores.

  7. Nynke says:

    A glass pickle? Oh! That’s unexpected, although it makes a little more sense as a decoration, I guess :).

    And what a story surrounding it… Thinking back to Mia’s Brava blog yesterday, I think it’s really incredible how much backstories are involved in all the different decorations you can get!

  8. Jane L says:

    Ahaaa! maybe I should clarify not a REAL pickle but a glass blown one! LOL!!!

    A descendent of a soldier who fought in the American Civil War, John Lower (Hans Lauer?), born in Bavaria in 1842, wrote to tell about a family story that had to do with a Christmas pickle. According to family lore, “John Lower was captured and sent to prison in Andersonville, Georgia. …In poor health and starving, he begged a guard for just one pickle before he died. The guard took pity on him and found a pickle for John Lower. According to family legend, John said that the pickle—by the grace of God—gave him the mental and physical strength to live on. Once he was reunited with his family he began a tradition of hiding a pickle on the Christmas tree. The first person who found the pickle on Christmas morning would be blessed with a year of good fortune.”

    Whether this Bavarian-American pickle story is true or not, and if it really gave rise to the Christmas pickle legend is open to question. One may doubt the story itself. If you thought you were dying, would your last wish be for a pickle? Plus, it’s a long way from a real pickle in Georgia to a glass pickle ornament in Germany! The Civil War ended in 1865, but glass Christmas tree ornaments did not become popular in the U.S. until around 1880, when F.W. Woolworth began importing them from Germany.

  9. Nynke says:

    It’s fun to read about Sinterklaas here and see the pictures you took in Utrecht, Mia :).

    And you’ve also included something new for me. I love that Jan Steen painting! I actually recognize some typical Sinterklaas cookies on it that we still eat today: the rectangle dipping out of the basket on the left is speculaas, and the large lozenge on the right is the largest piece of taai-taai I’ve ever seen. So cool! I wonder if it actually tasted the same back then. It would have been fantastically expensive because of all the exotic spices that go into it.

    Deb, pebbernødder sound like Dutch pepernoten, another Sinterklaas favourite :).

    As for Christmas foods, I haven’t experienced lefsa or lutefisk yet (only the 7 kinds of cookies Norwegian housewives proudly present on platters in the run-up to X-mas), but who knows…

    And Jane, that pickle idea sounds like fun!

  10. MiaMarlowe says:

    Oh, yummy, Deb. My DH would so love fried sugar cookies.

  11. MiaMarlowe says:

    I’ve never heard of putting a pickle on the Christmas tree, Jane. (Shaking my head in amazement) Why a pickle, I wonder?

  12. Deb says:

    My grandfather immigrated from Denmark and in our family we make little, woven, heart-shaped baskets to fill with goodies and hang on the bottom branches of the Christmas tree. I also string a garland of little Danish flags on my tree. My mother makes 2 Danish cookies at Christmas time: klejner (like a fried sugar cookie) and pebbernødder ( a tiny little cookie made with lard; it is not like the German peppernuts).

  13. Jane L says:

    We always have done the Christmas treats in shoes on December 6th. I have no idea why we started it. I think ther kids learned in school the tradition and they put our their shoes and we just played along. LOL! We actually do the pickle tradition, does anyone do that? It is a German folklore tradition (because most Germans were not actually aware of this tradition or how it was started!) of hiding a pickle in the tree and whoever finds it gets an extra gift. We celebrate this on Christmas Eve. My kids think its a hoot! They are all adults, but they literally almost knock over the tree trying to win! br /I am very much into the history of Christmas ornaments, very facinating!

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