Saturday, November 15, 2008

a saintly visitor from Spain

At the time of the Calvinist Reformation in Holland, a major effort was made to stamp out the celebration of all the saint-connected festivals To a great extent the reformers succeeded, but two saints proved to be Reformation-proof: St Martin (whose feast is November 11) and St Nicholas (December 6).

The Dutch have an affectionate name for St Nicholas -- Sinterklaas. Every year, on a Saturday in mid-November, he arrives by boat (more or less simultaneously) in all the Dutch cities and some of the larger towns.

Some photos of Sinterklaas' arrival in Alkmaar today are here:

According to the Dutch, Sinterklaas lives in Spain when not making his annual visit to Holland. It's not today's Spain, however, but Moorish Spain -- Spain before the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. Thus when he arrives, he is accompanied by a crowd of dark-skinned Moorish assistants, each of whom the Dutch call Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), all of them colorfully dressed in medieval clothing. St Nicholas, bishop that he is, wears cope and miter.

In the weeks before St. Nicholas Day, December 6, Sinterklaas goes visiting schools and hospitals, in theory to discover how well-behaved each child has been, though it turns all Dutch children are very upright. Meanwhile bakeries are busy making speculaas (molded spice cookies).

Each evening Dutch children put out their shoes with a wish list and also something for Sinterklaas's horse, usually a carrot. In the days leading up to December 6, each morning children will find Sinterklaas has left a small gift in their shoes: some chocolate or a candy treat, pepernoten (tiny spice cookies).

As it is ancient tradition that feasts begin after sundown the day before the festival, on the evening of December 5th there are family parties at which gifts and surprises are exchanged. Each gift comes from Sinterklaas and includes a poem signed by the saint that may point out the recipient's shortcomings in a teasing way. (A few of the Sinterklaas poems that Anne Frank wrote while in hiding are included in her diary.) A small gift may often be wrapped in a big box that is decorated in such a way that the package itself is a work of art.

When the Dutch founded New Amsterdam, today's New York, Sinterklaas came with them. In time his name was anglicized into Santa Claus.


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