The Story Behind Sinterklaas

It’s Saint Nicholas’ Eve. So here’s the back story on the legend as it is known in The Netherlands.

In The Netherlands and Belgium, Saint Nicolas (often called “De Goede Sint” — “The Friendly Saint”) is aided by helpers commonly known as Zwarte Piet (“Black Peter”) in Dutch or “Père Fouettard” in French.
The folklore of Saint Nicolas has many parallels with Germanic mythology, in particular with the god Odin. These include the beard, hat and spear (nowadays a staff) and the cloth bag held by the servants to capture naughty children. Both Saint Nicolas and Odin ride white horses that can fly through the air; the white eight-legged steed of Odin is named Sleipnir (although Sleipnir is more commonly depicted as gray). The letters made of candy given by the Zwarte Pieten to the children evokes the fact that Odin ‘invented’ the rune letters. The poems made during the celebration and the songs the children sing relate to Odin as the god of the arts of poetry.
There are various explanations of the origins of the helpers. The oldest explanation is that the helpers symbolize the two ravens Hugin and Munin who informed Odin on what was going on. In later stories the helper depicts the defeated devil. The devil is defeated by either Odin or his helper Nörwi, the black father of the night. Nörwi is usually depicted with the same staff of birch (Dutch: “roe”) as Zwarte Piet.
Another, more modern, story is that Saint Nicolas liberated an Ethiopian slave boy called ‘Piter’ (from Saint Peter) from a Myra market, and the boy was so grateful he decided to stay with Saint Nicolas as a helper. With the influx of immigrants to the Netherlands starting in the late 1950s, this story is felt by some to be racist. Today, Zwarte Piet have become modern servants, who have black faces because they climb through chimneys, causing their skin to become blackened by soot. They hold chimney cleaning tools (cloth bag and staff of birch). Until the Second World War, Saint Nicolas was only helped by one servant. When the Canadians liberated the Netherlands in 1945, they reinstated the celebrations of Sinterklaas for the children. Unaware of the traditions, the Canadians thought that if one Zwarte Piet was fun, several Zwarte Pieten is even more fun. Ever since Saint Nicolas is helped by a group of Zwarte Pieten.
Presents given during this feast are often accompanied by poems, some basic, some quite elaborate pieces of art that mock events in the past year relating to the recipient. The gifts themselves may be just an excuse for the wrapping, which can also be quite elaborate. The more serious gifts may be reserved for the next morning. Since the giving of presents is Sinterklaas’s job, presents are traditionally not given at Christmas in the Netherlands, although the latter is gaining popularity.
The Zwarte Pieten have roughly the same role for the Dutch Saint Nicolas that the elves have to America’s Santa Claus. According to tradition, the saint has a Piet for every function: there are navigation Pieten to navigate the steamboat from Spain to Holland, or acrobatic Pieten for climbing up the roofs to stuff presents through the chimney, or to climb through themselves. Throughout the years many stories have been added, mostly made up by parents to keep children’s belief in Saint Nicolas intact and to discourage misbehaviour. In most cases the Pieten are quite lousy at their job, such as the navigation Piet (Dutch “wegwijspiet”) pointing in the wrong direction. This is often used to provide some simple comedy in the annual parade of Saint Nicolas coming to the Netherlands, and can also be used to laud the progress of children at school by having the Piet give the wrong answer to, for example, a simple mathematical question like 2+2, so that the child in question is (or can be) persuaded to give the right answer.

In the Netherlands and in Belgium the character of Santa Claus, as known in the United States (with his white beard, red and white outfit, etc.), is entirely distinct from Sinterklaas, known instead as de Kerstman in Dutch (trans. the Christmasman) or Père Noël (Father Christmas) in French. Although Sinterklaas is the predominant gift-giver in the Netherlands in December (36% of the population only give presents on Sinterklaas day), Christmas is used by another fifth of the Dutch population to give presents (21% give presents on Christmas only). Some 26% of the Dutch population give presents on both days. In Belgium, presents are given to children only, but to almost all of them, on Sinterklaas day. On Christmas day, everybody have presents, but often without Santa Claus’ help.
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