A Dutch Semi-Christmas

Sinterklaas came this past Sunday, which signifies the start of the holiday season in Amsterdam. He brought along his helpers, Zwarte Piet (still don’t know if they are supposed to be one single entity or multiple? Either way they are frightening), and plenty of cookies. I’m adding my own pictures for this post, but getting information from my favorite cultural website, http://www.awesomeamsterdam.com. My favorite fact, perhaps, is that if you’re bad, supposedly Sinteklaas (or Zwarte Piet, who is sometimes known for beating children) will put you in a bag and take you back to Spain with him. Enjoy, and try not to judge. Watch the video as well!

Who is Sinterklaas? Sinterklaas, also known as Sint Nicolaas, is a traditional Dutch figure based on the Catholic Saint Nicholas who was a Greek bishop in the third century. He is the patron saint of children, sailors, travelers, thieves, virgins, prostitutes and … the city of Amsterdam! Sint Nicolaas is a white-bearded man who wears red and white bishop’s garb and holds a fancy gold staff. Unlike Santa Claus, Sinterklaas is not fat and jolly, rather he is a tall dignified gentleman who decides which children were naughty or nice in the past year. Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands in mid-November on a boat from Spain. After disembarking on Dutch soil he hops on his white horse, Amerigo, and makes his appearance in streets, schools and hospitals around the country. As mentioned above, Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands each year in mid-November by steamboat from Spain. It isn’t known exactly why he lives in Spain, but theories abound. Perhaps it is because the Catholic Saint Nicolas was buried in Spain or Italy, or perhaps it is because he brings Spanish oranges as gifts. Maybe he just prefers the sunny weather there. It is said that the Sint travels to the Netherlands on a steamboat because he is the patron saint of sailors. The steamboat was also an amazing new technology when many modern Sinterklaas songs and poems were written. In the Middle Ages, Sinterklaas was a holiday for Dutch school children to honor Saint Nicolaas and over time it also became a village festival. The holiday was both an opportunity to give aid to the poor as well as a time for wild revelry, similar to Carnival.

Sinterklaas. He seemed like a nice guy!

Sinterklaas. He seemed like a nice guy!

Who is Zwarte Piet? Zwarte Piet (or Black Peter, plural Zwarte Pieten) is a helper of Sinterklaas, somewhat like Santa’s elves. These colorfully dressed helpers follow Sinterklaas and assist him with distributing candy and gifts while entertaining children with silly antics. The Zwarte Pieten carry a chimney sweep’s broom which is used to spank naughty children as well as a big sack used to ferry the worst brats back to Spain. Newcomers to the Netherlands might be shocked by the appearance of people dressed in blackface with dark curly wigs and clownish outfits. Some find it racist and offensive but the liberal Dutch mostly view it as a charming and harmless tradition. There are various explanations for the origins of these helpers. Some say they symbolize a freed slave boy who became a grateful servant to Saint Nicolaas. Others believe the Pieten are simply Moors from Spain. In newer versions of the story, the Zwarte Pieten are black because they are covered in soot from climbing down chimneys to deliver gifts. Similar to the Smurfs, there is a Piet for every function. Some specialize in entertaining children, others in climbing down chimneys and a few are skilled navigators for the boat trip from Spain.


Zwarte Pieten on the biggest department store in Amsterdam...

Zwarte Pieten on the biggest department store in Amsterdam…