Earlier in the fall I asked readers for submissions on Christmas traditions around the world. I am delighted to offer you this post on Sinterklaas by Annelies Kanis who wrote the popular post The Trunk That Traveled the World.
Bright December moon is beaming
boys and girls now stop your play
for tonight’s the wondrous evening
eve of good St. Nicholas day
There is nothing quite like the magic of Saint Nicolas. Or as we say, Sinterklaas.
Saint Nicolas was a Turkish Saint from the 4th Century A.D. In the Netherlands we celebrate Sinterklaas on the evening before his name day, which is December 6th. The original Saint Nicolas had a reputation for secret gift giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out. And as it goes with legends, the legend of Saint Nicolas got bigger and bigger and somehow turned into the very typical Dutch Sinterklaas celebration that it is today, with elements added on and left behind as we went along. So why is this tradition described in Marilyn’s blog series of Christmas traditions? Sinterklaas is at the root of another tradition, the Christmas-related tradition of Santa Claus.
The build up for Sinterklaas starts halfway November when Sinterklaas arrives on his steamboat from Spain. The local mayor will welcome him with an appropriate ceremony (he is after all, a Saint). Sinterklaas comes with his helpers, Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) He is a very wise man who knows all the children in the country by name, and he brings them gifts. When you leave your shoe out and sing by it, he’ll notice and give you a small gift by sending his helpers down the chimney. Not during the day, but when you’re asleep at night, when he travels over rooftops with his horse Amerigo and his helpers. The big celebration is December 5th, when he brings more gifts to families gathered together.
The magical thing about this feast is that all children really believe he exists. It’s a belief stronger and more convinced than the belief in Santa Claus, and it lasts longer. All adults help children believe. For example: Sinterklaas pays a visit to all the Dutch embassies on December 5th. In Islamabad, he used to arrive by tonga (horse-drawn carriage).
Usually kids start asking questions about how it works when they’re around 7 or 8. My eldest son is 7, and I’m dreading the day he doesn’t believe anymore and the magic partly disappears.
But until he and after him his little brother stop believing, we’ll help keep the magic alive. On December 5th, my parents and sister with her family will come to our house. They’ll bring gifts that they’ll smuggle up to the attic. Not just gifts for the kids, but also gifts for the adult whose name you’ve pulled out of a hat. Or more recently, the person that the online tool has picked for you.
We’ll sing Sinterklaas songs, eat traditional candy and Sinterklaas or his helpers will knock on the door and leave gifts behind. He’ll move on to the next house really quickly, because he has to pay many visits. We’ve never really seen him, but my kids say they’ve seen shadows of his helpers on the roof.
But here’s what I love most about Sinterklaas. Gifts, even though they can be well thought out, are in the end easy to purchase (especially online). The attached self-written poem is one of the things that makes this holiday special. We add a poem to at least one of the gifts, in rhyme. The poem is supposedly written by Sinterklaas and his helpers, and reflects on the past year. It can be sweet and loving, but it can also be about specific character traits that you don’t want to address directly and want to tease someone with. The poem is a great way to reflect on the year behind and it takes time to write a good poem – more time than to shop for gifts. When time is precious, the poem is a gift of attention, of really thinking about the person you’re writing for, what they’ve experienced and who they are.
Advent for me starts after Sinterklaas. Advent and Christmas hold many traditions of their own, enough to fill another blog. But by giving gifts with poems at Sinterklaas (and leaving them out at Christmas), Advent and Christmas are more focused on light that Christmas brings.