Sinterklaas I Posted by Transparent Language on Dec 15, 2008 in Dutch Language
I almost forgot a very Dutch tradition… It’s been very busy here so I completely forgot about it until after the ‘event’ was over… Of course I’m talking about the Dutch children’s hero: Sinterklaas.
Every year on the 5th of November, Sinterklaas comes to the Netherlands from Spain with a large steam boat, his trusted horse Amerigo and his Moorish helpers, ‘de Zwarte Pieten’ or ‘Black Petes’. He comes to the Netherlands to celebrate his birthday and on the 6th of December when Sinterklaas returns to Spain, all children receive a present.
So how did this all get started?
About 1600 years ago, a certain Nicolaas was the bishop of Myra, a city in small Asia which was under Roman command. He was loved amongst the people because of his generosity for the poor and his love for children. After his death in 326, his bones were transferred to Italy.
For centuries people worshipped him, adults and children alike. Churches and places were named after him, he became the patron for shippers, travellers, students, children, prisoners, bakers, merchants, lawyers, cities (Amsterdam) and countries (Russia and Greece).
In those days it was already custom that children received a present from a bearded man on a white horse, if they hadn’t been naughty of course.
After some time, Italy changed to Spain, hence the black Moorish helpers.
The origin of the modern Sinterklaas celebration, can be traced back to the 19th century.
A teacher from Amsterdam, Jan Schenkman (1806 – 1863) wrote the children’s book
‘Sint Nicolaas en zijn knecht’ (St. Nicholas and his helper) with the text from the still popular Sinterklaas song: Zie ginds komt de stoomboot (Here comes the steamboat).
Italy became Spain and the ‘roe’ and ‘zak’ of the Black Pete were also introduced (for pedagogic reasons). The ‘roe’ was some kind of ‘whisk’ made of small twigs and probably used to ‘punish’ bad children. The naughty children would be taken back to Spain in a large jute bag (the same bag that first contained all the presents).
Sint started to ride the white horse over the rooftops and the presents were delivered through the chimneys into the awaiting shoes of the children.
Another man to influence the celebration, was Jan Pieter Heije (1809 -1876) with his song: Zie de maan schijnt door de bomen (See the moon shine through the trees).
In the 90’s of the last century, the horse of Sinterklaas got a name in the Netherlands: Amerigo. In Belgium the horse is called: Slecht Weer Vandaag (Bad Weather Today).
In the 15th century, people started to ‘place their shoes’. At first they did so at church and the profits would go to the poor. Rich people would put something in the placed shoes and the gifts were shared equally on the 6th of December, the official date of death, of the Saint Nicholas.
In the 16th century, children started to place their shoe near the fireplace in the living rooms and the Dutch artist Jan Steen made a painting of this happening in the 17th century. On the paintings you can see what the children received in their shoes. Often it was candy… the kind we still associate with Sinterklaas… speculaas, pepernoten and marzipan. Besides candy children also received toys… and today the Chocolate letter is an important ingredient in the treats. Sometimes boys would find a ‘roe’ or a little bag of salt in their shoe.
Of course Sinterklaas appreciates it a lot, if he finds a carrot in the shoe for his horse, or an apple, or sugar cubes. Or if children make him a painting and sing a song when they place their shoe.
I’ll revisit this topic next time… because there’s still a lot to tell about Sinterklaas… and let’s not forget his connection to Santa Claus!