When I first arrived in The Netherlands I had no idea who Sinterklaas was. I didn’t even know he existed. My first November/December in the country was deeply confusing for that reason. During the years that followed I learned a little bit more about the tradition but I largely ignored it. I observed it as an outsider, not fully understanding it or having a reason to celebrate it.
Then I met a Dutch girl, we fell in love and got married. Suddenly I wasn’t an outsider any more. I had a guide who could help me explore the confusing world of Dutch traditions. Suddenly I was eating pepernoten, singing Sinterklaas songs and celebrating every pakjes avond with funny poems and joke gifts. I got to know Sinterklaas through my wife and her family and I discovered how much fun it could be. I’ve loved the tradition ever since.
The thing I love the most about Sinterklaas is the way the whole country just throws themselves into the celebration. It’s a huge country wide event which the Dutch make as real as possible.
The best example of this is the Sinterklaasjournaal, a daily news program dedicated to reporting on Sinterklaas’ progress. Each year I eagerly watch as they follow his journey from Spain to the Netherlands and every year something goes wrong. Either the steam boat breaks down, or there is a leak or they realize they have forgotten all the gifts. This usually leads to a huge panic on board and I just love the way Sinterklaas reacts to it all. It’s priceless. He simply smiles, says “dag hoor,” and walks out the room without any indication that he is aware of the chaos going on around him. I love his eccentric nature.
However, the truth is he is always aware of the chaos. He just knows everything will work out fine in the end one way or another (or he already has a plan). There is a lesson in there somewhere. To Sinterklaas every problem is just an opportunity in disguise.
Of course the problem is only solved at the last moment during his live televised arrival in The Netherlands. I’m always impressed by the scale of this event; the huge steam boat sailing into a Dutch city (each year a different one), Sinterklaas waving from the bow of the ship with the Pieten, thousands of excited children lining the harbor and city streets, Sinterklaas taking a tour of the city on his horse. It’s very extravagant and not as low-key as the arrival of Father Christmas in England.
And it’s not even over once Sinterklaas has settled in The Netherlands and unpacked the boat. There is a building feeling of excitement as Sinterklaas and the Pieten already start visiting houses and leaving sweets or small gifts in people shoes. I love that all the excitement isn’t just based around the main day itself.
When pakjes avond does arrive it is very exciting. The anticipation has reached its highest point and best of all Sinterklaas does not deliver the gifts while you are asleep like Father Christmas. He knocks on the damn door (well… his helpers do) while you are awake! Just when the children are as over excited as they can be there is a cacophony of loud knocking on the door. The excited child runs to the door, flings it open and discovers a sack full of gifts. Sint and Piet have already disappeared, never to be seen. It’s very exciting.
Sinterklaas is not without his sense of humor either. I love the Dutch tradition of funny poems and joke gifts. During my first real pakjes avond I received 12 individually wrapped toothbrushes over the course of the evening just because the first weekend I met my wife’s parents I had forgotten to bring one.
The best thing is, when it is all finally over it does not feel like it went by too fast. It’s been a whole month and half of Sinterklaas and the end feels somehow satisfying.
Of course there is another side of the tradition, one that sparks debate each year. Since I’ve just expressed my feelings about Sinterklaas you are probably wondering what I think about his helpers. Well, the truth is I love Sinterklaas but I feel a little uncomfortable around Zwarte Piet.
I grew up in England during a time when similar imagery (the golliwog) was banned. Partly because of that I’ve been raised to have a certain assassination with black face; racism. Judging by the attention Sinterklaas has been getting from the outside world lately I think it is safe to say a lot of countries have that association too.
But here is the thing; I don’t think the Dutch have that association. I don’t think they are trying to be offensive. I certainly don’t think they are trying to be racist. To them Zwarte Piet is a loveable character who (in a lot of ways) is more important than Sinterklaas himself. I think the Dutch are honestly confused when people shout racism.
And because of that I can sort of understand why they get a little defensive. Imagine that you’ve just been told (by the whole world no less) that the lovable character from your innocent childhood isn’t lovable and your childhood wasn’t innocent at all, it was full of “evil racism”. Of course you are going to get defensive. You don’t want something you love to be associated with something like that.
But also try to imagine being a black person, who has probably experienced some form of racism at some point in their life, being faced with the imagery of Zwarte Piet. I imagine it is going to bring up some very dark and painful memories. Telling people offended by Zwarte Piet to shut up and stop complaining is not a solution. It lacks empathy and it can lead down a very dangerous path. I think it is important to be open to both sides of an argument, even if you don’t agree with them. You at least have to listen. That’s how to reach an understanding and how progress is made.
To their credit the Dutch are making changes to the tradition. The celebration is starting to include more and more soot faced Piet and Dutch children seem unfazed by it. Maybe this trend will continue. Sinterklaas has changed before. He’s no longer the scary man who will take you to Spain in a sack to be beaten simply because you didn’t finish your vegetables.
I Love Sinterklaas
So I will continue to enjoy the tradition of Sinterklaas (but feel a little weird around Zwarte Piet). I will continue to enjoy all the things I love about it; eating pepernoten and chocolate letters, singing songs in front of my shoe, writing funny poems and being surprised by joke gifts, following the Sinterklaasjournaal with my daughter and son and then walking into our village to see Sinterklaas arrive there too.
And best of all, as soon as it is all over I can put up the Christmas decorations and get ready for another bearded man in red to bring me more gifts. I love Sinterklaas but I still love you too Father Christmas.
(To learn more about the difference between Sinterklaas and Father Christmas/Sanata check out the Invading Holland Sinterklaas Guide).