When I was little, the 5th of December meant placing your shoe by the chimney or radiator just before you went to bed. You’d stuff it with a carrot, a few cubes of sugar, and a rolled up drawing hailing the characters of the current festivities. Come morning, you’d rush into the living room, excited to see what Sinterklaas had left you. There’d be mandarins, preferably rather leafy, and speculaas in the shape of the fairytale saint himself. Sometimes, there’d be gold-wrapped chocolate coins and chocolate figurines wrapped in colourful, aluminium foil. And, there’d be toys. Toys you’d spent the weeks before selecting from catalogues, window displays, and the endless cycle of commercials being pumped out since early November. You’d flick page after folder page—crammed into your letter box the weeks before—and cut or tore out the ones you wanted. At school, you’d draw a line art version of a hessian bag and stick your cut-out paper toys on it. It was the thing to do, to tabulate.
My aunt, as a child, sitting on Sinterklaas's lap during the late 1940's.
You wished for extravagant Playmobil sets, stuff to construct with, maybe a new game for your Gameboy, which by then already came in bright colours and an upgraded smaller size. And, half-size, plastic instruments with echoey sound effects. The make-belief child band made it seem so tempting. You were going to play, you were going to sing, you were going to be the brightest thing. The folders, printed on cheap, thin paper, promised so. Your happiness within reach for the price displayed (batteries not included). And, we wanted it all, for we were such greedy little monsters.
We’d leave a shoe out at school, as well. Same set-up. Bunched together, we’d wait outside our classroom. Trying to get traction on the brick to lift ourselves high enough, fingers curled around the wood trimming of the high-up windows. You’d probably scuff someone’s jacket on the way, the wall functioned as a coat rack, after all. If you were tall enough, you only needed to stand on your tip-toes. Our school had big, wide windows, so even with the lights turned off in Winter, we’d still get a proper glimpse. On our desks, there’d be more mandarins, letter biscuits, and chocolate figurines, though these weren’t wrapped in foil. They came in white, milk, and we’d barter with each other to get the flavour we wanted.
Half-way down November, Sinterklaas arrives from Spain, and arrives, and arrives. So, that almost any child in Belgium and The Netherlands has the chance to see him. He arrives by steamboat, where possible, and by horse, or other means if there isn’t a body of water in sight. Once ashore, he and his Black Petes parade through the streets, Sinterklaas most often astride a white horse. Decked out in his red and white, and gold trimmed and embroidered robes, his golden staff in one hand, mitre on his head, and jewellery gracing his gloved fingers. Whilst, children greedily stick out their hands for small biscuits and candy, which the Black Petes dispense from their bags. So much anticipation fluttering about and the sincere belief that the man with the wavy, long, white hair and beard and rich robes is so very, very real. There’s a show we’d watch, called ‘Dag, Sinterklaas’, it was domestic and light-hearted, it showed us what it was like to live in a castle with Sinterklaas and his mischievous Black Petes. The castle was a home away from home for Sinterklaas and his servants. They’d stay there from their arrival till they left once more on the 6th of December. It was domestic and light-hearted. We’d watch them prepare presents and treats, look after Sinterklaas’s horse Bad-Weather-Today, and get up to all sorts of mischief. The show was a kind of bedtime story in our countdown to the 6th. You see, each episode would start with the presenter tucking his little girls into bed and recounting the adventures he’d had that day with Sinterklaas and the Black Petes. They were short, the time it would take to be read a bedtime story, or three, and it had a sedated excitement about it that most other children in the country shared with you. On December 5th, the last episode would the air, the night that Sinterklaas travels from roof to roof, sending his Black Petes down chimneys to claim our offerings and leave us our rewards.
At least, if you’d been good. If you hadn’t been then you’d get beaten with a bundle of sticks or get stuffed down a bag and be dragged off into the very far away. And, that fear, of being taken in the middle of the night is the thing I remember most vividly. Every other memory and association I had to delve a little deeper for. I can’t recall if that vivid memory of fear stemmed from a single year and a single night or if it’s an amalgamation of multiple December 5th’s. My memory, like most, is fallible, subject to change. In her, ‘The Science of The Unconscious Mind’, Rosalind Cartwright says: “Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original… it is a continuing act of creation.” Even with the details warped rather oddly around the edges, the memory of fear, so large and gripping, remains. The idea that children would be beaten or dragged off if they were bad used to be part of the tradition of Sinterklaas, it’s there in the songs and in older, black and white photos, you can still see Black Pete holding a tied bundle of twigs, ‘de roe’. ‘De roe’ or ‘rod’ can still be found in some of the Sinterklaas songs. It’s an older dutch word, that we don’t really use anymore, I don’t think there’s a child out there that knows what the word refers to.
We’ve stopped telling children that this faith could befall them. It no longer fits our current views on childhood and childrearing. We shouldn’t forget that the mythology and story of Sinterklaas isn’t a carbon copy of the decade before, and the one before that, and before that. The story, like many traditions, is in flux. We started with a saint, Nicholas, a Greek bishop who lived in Turkey during the 3rd and 4th century. He lived during a time of persecution of his Christian faith and spent many of his years in prison, because he refused to relinquish his faith. Stories, real or otherwise, started to gather around him throughout the centuries. He was remembered and revered and tales of the miracles he’d performed spread far and wide. In one, three young girls are saved from a lifetime of prostitution when a young Nicholas bestowed three bags of gold upon them for their dowry. In another story, an innkeeper dismembered three boys and pickled their remains, the bishop sensed the crime and returned the boys to life. Through these stories, Saint Nicholas became a patron saint for varying groups. He was known as a gift bringer and a miracle worker. From the 13th century, all the way up to the beginning of the 16th century, he was celebrated on the day of his death, December 6th. A feast celebrated together and marked by treats and gifts. The promise of reward if the children were good ensured that they behaved themselves and remembered to say their prayers. During the 16th century and the Protestant Reformation, saints fell out of favour, but the population wanted to keep the gift-bringer who kept their children in line. Depending on the region, new characters were developed or revived from earlier pre-Christian traditions. Characters, that in some regions, seemed more frightening than the saint ever was. Think of Knecht Ruprecht, Belsnickel, or Krampus. They were a kind of foil to the benevolence of Saint Nicholas, they brought the promise of punishment if one didn’t behave. They were the night to his day and together they formed a dual concept that carried on. One thing that does seem clear, no matter the precise details, is that the figure of Sinterklaas and his companion are cross-pollinated figures of myth. Their story flavoured by Norse, Roman, and Germanic deities and folklore, and most importantly what the current landscape needed them to be.
Click Illustrations for full view. "Gruss Vom Krampus" Greetings from Krampus, an early 19th Century greeting card from Austria. Notice the similarities between Black Pete and Sinterklaas stuffing the naughty children down their bag (second and fourth illustration) and Krampus doing the same. In the third illustration you see Krampus holding his bundle of sticks, with which he would beat children if they were bad. In the fifth, Black Pete is holding a similar bundle, called 'de roe' in the song, under his right arm.
The saint kept his goodness and other benevolent associations and seemed to stay much the same in appearance, his costume still clearly bishop’s robes in origins. Whilst, his companion inherited many of Krampus’s, and other figures’s, characteristics, at least as far as punishments go. Reframed within a colonial mindset during the 19th century we created a milder version, without the former’s autonomy, a servant. Initially, a black and nameless servant, who eventually received the name of Peter, who in turn became known as Black Pete. You can say that the black paint on Black Pete’s isn’t a visualisation of a black person. That it’s a representation of a creature like Krampus—who was often depicted as dark shagged. That it represents the night. That it represents a devil. But, let us be honest, you can’t deny Belgian and Dutch colonialism. You can’t deny that Leopold II of Belgium used and abused the Congo (known since 1997 as the Democratic Republic of The Congo) and holds responsibility for the death of millions of black people. You can’t deny that The Netherlands held their own set of colonies and inflicted abuse on land and local populations in their exploration and commercialisation of the world. So, when you look at the poems and the illustrations of the quintessential ‘Sinterklaas en Zijn Knecht’ by Jan Schenkman, a Dutch school teacher, written in 1850. You cannot deny the colonial viewpoint held within. Add to that, that the Dutch Newspaper ‘De Tijd’ calls Pieter, Sinterklaas’s servant, a n*gger on the front page of its December, 6th, 1859 issue, though, none less loved than the bishop himself. And, there’s not much arguing left that the people who dressed up as Black Pete during the 20th century and still continue to do so, using paint to colour their faces black, their mouths red, and adorned with gold hooped earrings, are indeed practising blackface. By doing so we are keeping our colonial past alive, something we could at the very least feel some shame about. Because if we’d felt shame, then we wouldn’t kick up such a ruckus when we are asked to abandon the practice of blackface.
Belgium seems to struggle less with letting go of a blackface Black Pete. This year, during the arrival of Sinterklaas, all the Black Petes were turned into chimney Petes. Their faces smudged with soot, devoid of red painted lips, afros, and gold hooped earrings. We even brought out a film last year, titled ‘Ay Ramon!’, the first Belgian Sinterklaas film, by much the same team that brought us ‘Dag, Sinterklaas’, and it’s pretty wonderful to see the same actor that played Black Pete over twenty years ago, still take up the role, but now with the updated version of a soot smudged face.
Many of the Dutch seem incensed by the potential removal of a blackface Black Pete’s. The hatred spewed online and directed at those wanting to create an inclusive and respectful feast that all children can enjoy is abominable. There simply doesn’t seem to be any room for an actual discussion on why it’s harmful. Only the threat of a tradition changed is seen. Not realising that the tradition has been changing all along. Change is hard. But, in a world that sees so much violence, discrimination, and hatred, can’t we take a moment to consider how a situation might influence another. That we can be part of a culture, whilst also being a citizen of something large.
+ Bad Weather Today is the name of Sinterklaas’s horse in Belgium, a name given on the television show ‘Dag, Sinterklaas’, presented by Bart Peeters, with Jan Decleir playing Sinterklaas, and Frans Van Der Aa playing Zwarte Piet. It ran for two seasons, from ’92 to ’93, and the episodes are re-aired each year in the countdown to Sinterklaas, with the last episode airing on December 5th. The show was meant to give children an updated version of Sinterklaas. To show that he was a good and holy man, who loved children, but that he was also human with all the human flaws that entailed.
+ St. Nicholas, regardless of his association to Sinterklaas and Santa Claus, is still celebrated in his own right.
The kick off for this article came to me by a recent video essay by Vox 'Why Blackface is Still Part of Dutch Christmas' by Christophe Haubursin. The title is a bit misleading, since the video discusses both Belgium and The Netherlands, and Belgians tend to be rather staunch about not having a Dutch thing about us, since we fought for our independence from The Netherlands in 1830. Even though 'Dutch' is one of the official languages, along with French and German, most people prefer to call it 'Flemish'. Since our collection of dialects, and the culture, and vocabulary that surrounds our language, is so unique to the Flemish region of Belgium. Sinterklaas isn't our Christmas either, we have Christmas on the 24th-25th same as most of the world. The essay made me think about my own childhood and growing up with the tradition of Sinterklaas.
- Roger Ross Williams. 'Blackface'. CNN. Documentary. Published 2015, November 25th.
- RTL. 'RTL stopt met Zwarte Piet, voortaan alleen Pieten met roetvegen'. Published on 2016, October 24th. Accesssed on 2016, December 4th.
- Maria Popova. 'Hold Still: Sally Mann on the Treachery of Memory, the Dark Side of Photography, and the Elusive Locus of the Self'. Brainpickings. Published on 2016, November 29th. Accessed on 2016, December 4th.
- Maria. Popova. 'Legendary Physicist David Bohm on the Paradox of Communication, the Crucial Difference Between Discussion and Dialogue, and What Is Keeping Us from Listening to One Another'. Brainpickings . Published and Accessed on 2016, December 5th.
- De Tijd: Godsdienstig-Staatkundig Dagblad. 'St. Nikolaas'. Published on 1859, December 6th in 's-Hertogenbosch. Front Page.
- Brian Handwerk. 'St. Nicholas to Santa: The Surprising Origins of Mr. Claus; Santa's evolution includes a round-the-world ride that rivals the one he does on Christmas Eve'. National Geographic. Published on 2013, December 20th. Accessed on 2016, December 5th.
- Tanya Basu. 'Who Is Krampus? Explaining the Horrific Christmas Devil: The mythical Krampus is meant to whip children into being nice'. Published 2013, December 19th. Accessed on 2016, December 5th.
- Hans Van Goethem. 'Ketnet | Opnames Sinterklaas-film Ay Ramon! van start: Stijn Coninx verfilmt Sint-verhaal van Hugo Matthysen'. Ketnet. VRT Communicatie. Published on 2015, April 7th. Accessed on 2016, December 6th.
- Jan Schenkman. 'Sinterklaas en Zijn Knecht'. Published in 1850, Amsterdam. Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren. Accessed on 2016, December 5th.
From the original 'Sinterklaas en Zijn Knecht' first edition by Jan Schenkman, from 1850. The DBNL didn't have the full book digitised, their copy didn't have all the illustrations and many were in the wrong order.
St. Nikolaas op Strooiavond.
Het leeft in den schoorsteen, Hoor, hoor dat geraas!
Hoe rollen hier de app'len, 't Is vast Sint Niklaas!
Maar neen... 't Is zijn knechtje, Dat zwart is van kleur;
Want ginds staat de Bisschop, Voor de opene deur.
Zing spoedig een liedje, Zie, zie, hoe hij gooit!
Hoe harder wij zingen, Hoe ruimer hij strooit.
St. Nicholas on Gift night.
It lives in the chimney, Oh, hear how it roars!
The apples are rolling, It must be Saint Nicholas!
Oh, but no...It's his servant, who's black in colour;
Because, over yonder, in the open door, is the bishop himself.
Quickly! Sing a song, Look, look, how he throws!
The louder we sing, The more he shares.
St. Nikolaas bij stoute Kinderen.
Ei, ei, die Sint Niklaas, Is lang toch niet mak!
Daar stopt hij twee knaapjes Pardoes in zijn zak.
't Is loon vast naar werken, En rijklijk verdiend:
Hij straft niet graag kindren, Maar is hun een vriend.
O Bisschop! vergeef hun Deez' enkelen keer,
Schenk, schenk hun genade: Zij doen het nooit weêr!
St. Nicholas Visits the Bad Children.
Hey, hey, that Saint Nicholas, Isn't the lenient sort!
All of a sudden, he's stuffing two boys down his bag.
It's probably their comeuppance, and richly deserved:
He doesn't like to punish children, He's their friend.
Oh, Bishop! Please forgive them, this once,
Show them mercy: They won't ever do it again!
Translated from 19th century Dutch to modern English to the best of my abilities. Since, it was a last minute translation, I wasn't able to keep the rhyming pattern. If you'd like to offer a more accurate translation, feel free to do so in the comments. I'm quite interested to know if anyone has a better translation for 'Strooiavond', than 'Gift Night'.
Use navigation to see all the illustrations. Illustrations from the 1907 and 1905 edition of 'Sinterklaas en Zijn Knecht' by Jan Schenkman. Both editions had a different illustrator, the first eight illustrations in the line up are by illustrator Petrus Geldorp, you can see his signature on the cover, just below the basket that Black Pete is dragging in. The others are unclear.