Sinterklaas Is Coming To Town

We often refer to November and December as “the holidays” in the United States because it’s a season in which several family occasions occur in close proximity to one another. For some, the holiday season may begin with Halloween, with decorations, candy, and costumes. For others, it begins closer to the end of November, at the beginning of Thanksgiving. For others, it pretty much just refers to the period of time encompassing Christmas and New Years.

Most large retail stores seem to fall into the first camp, with Christmas trees and displays involving snow covered angels appearing with desperate urgency as soon as possible, often on Halloween itself. I, for the most part, tend to align myself with the second camp, considering the period of around Thanksgiving to the New Year to be “the holidays”. The third camp, the Christmas Eve-to New Year’s Day-ers, are kind of unknown to me, and don’t sound like much fun.

Here in the Netherlands, I’m not really as familiar with the schedule, but I think we’re in the midst of it now. There’s no wide or noticeable observation of Halloween here (although I think there are Halloween parties in college towns, if the posters are a good indicator), but they do have the Feast of St. Martin, which occurred yesterday. I’m not sure what the details of it are, really, but from our end, what Lorie and I saw were groups of children going from house to house with paper lanterns, singing short songs (presumably about St. Martin), and soliciting candy. In one regard, it wasn’t too different from Halloween, except that it was about a week and a half late, and there were no costumes.

At least, we were told that there wouldn’t be any costumes, but then the group of people that showed up at our house was half in costume! There was an Egyptian pharaoh, a witch, and a kid in a scream mask, not to mention several other costumes, and one child in some face paint that may have been intended to convey “injured person” or “zombie”, but really just seemed more like some sort of pox. This was fairly confusing for us. That was the only group we saw in costumes, though. Our neighborhood was a little slow, so we went for a little walk around town, and saw several groups of kids, but no costumes, so it seems the first group were cultural deviants or something. Perhaps it will be more common to transition the Feast of St. Martin to more resemble an American-style Halloween in the coming years, but I don’t think we’ll be here in Renkum long enough to assemble a good data set, since we’re heading back to Montana in December.

So, if the Feast of St. Martin sounds like it might be a politically-correct version of Halloween that has had potentially offensive costumes on children removed, just wait until we get to the arrival of Sinterklaas… which was today, as it turns out!

Sinterklass is more or less analogous to our Santa Claus, but with a few differences. First, there’s… well, maybe I should start with what’s the same first. He’s an older gentleman here too, with a big white beard. He dresses in red, distributes presents to children, and is generally a nice guy. And that might be about the extent of what stays the same, actually. So what’s different? First we must do some visualization exercises…

Clear your mind…. picture a cloud… now picture the cloud floating away, because we don’t actually need it right now. Now imagine Gandalf the Grey. Got him? Alright, now imagine him dressed as the pope– that’s right, the Bishop of Rome, big pointy hat, cloak, shepherd’s crook and all. Now imagine most of that colored red, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of Sinterklass. It’s pretty awesome, really. And don’t take that as a criticism– I love Gandalf. The Gandalf comparison is actually pretty apt– both are perhaps influenced by Odin as the Wanderer… a bearded wayfaring figure with a staff who traveled anonymously. If I recall the myths correctly, he rewarded those who treated him well, and punished those who didn’t– possibly recognizable as a the “naughty or nice” assessment of contemporary Santa Claus.

So, different costume, regionally varying name– what else is different? Despite being quite a lot more religious-looking here, Sinterklaas actually is fairly removed from the celebration of Christmas, and precedes the holiday here by several weeks. I mentioned he arrived today, but the day of Sinterklass is December 5th– the feast day of St. Nicolas. After that, he heads off for another year, and Christmas evidently comes and goes without him. Our association of St. Nicolas with Christmas seems unusual to folks here, I think. It would be as if St. Patrick were to come to our homes on Easter to hide eggs, simply because the feast day and the holiday occur so closely together.

Santa Claus, as we know, lives at the North Pole, and travels by a flying sleigh, which is pulled by reindeer. Sinterklass has not only a different residence, but a different conveyance as well. Sinterklass lives in Spain. I thought that perhaps he still lives somewhere remote, like in the mountains of Spain (perhaps in a Basque village), but no, he lives in Madrid. I don’t know why that strikes me as so funny– I guess it’s because Santa’s North Pole residence makes him culturally neutral– “a citizen of the world”, so to speak, rather than a resident of one specific country or political state. It also makes him inaccessible for the rest of the year– he is sufficiently remote that he won’t factor into vacation plans, whereas a trip to Madrid with children of a certain age may require a visit to the home of Sinterklass (who, I think, lives in a palace).

As for mode of travel, Sinterklaas makes his nocturnal rounds on horseback, traveling from rooftop to rooftop. That sounds familiar enough, but what of yesterday, when he made his public arrival to the Netherlands? Well, he shows up on a boat, like a boss. There’s some pretty good fanfare about it, and everyone (that is, everyone with kids, and then me & Lorie) goes down to the harbor to watch him arrive. In the case of the Wageningen arrival, there’s a little procession through town, too, which I surmise is typical of such events. Oh, and, like Santa, Sinterklaas has some abilities that allow him to be in many places at once. In the same way that Santa can be at several area shopping malls, or participate in several simultaneous parades, Sinterklaas arrives on the same day in communities all over the Netherlands.

And now we come to what is, to my American perspective, perhaps the most unusual aspect of the Sinterklaas celebration: his helpers. Before I delve into this too much, please keep in mind that I’m trying to wear my cultural anthropologist hat here, and will try to present an account of a local festival without being judgemental. This is one of those cases where a seemingly harmless local festival has some rather shocking appearances for American visitors, and this isn’t my first time at that rodeo.

When I was in Madrid several years ago with a school trip, we were there during Holy Week, and saw Nazarenos dressed in capirotes, a processional attire worn by Catholic brotherhoods that was seemingly appropriated by the Ku Klux Klan (oddly, given that they are an anti-Catholic group, as well as racists). To visitors unfamiliar with the sight, it can look like the people of Madrid have a Klan rally during their Easter celebration, but this is far from the case. We were on that trip with several African American students from the Washington, DC area, and I remember that their nervousness became palpable when we encountered these processions. Even I know it’s just a religious vestment, it still strikes me as kind of spooky because I carry some cultural baggage left to me by the crimes of a hate group.

So what does this all have to do with Sinterklaas? He’s not attended by Nazarenos, but by Zwarte Pieten. Zwarte Pieten translates to “Black Petes”… the six to eight black men you may have heard of via David Sedaris. I’m not sure when there started to be multiple Petes, but originally I think it was just one. There seem to be two accounts of how Piet became associated with Sinterklass, one a bit more politically correct (all things considered), and the other a little more… antiquated. In some tales, St. Nicolas triumphed over the devil, and enslaved him for one night a year. This can still be seen more literally in the Krampus tradition, but in ages past, the devil was represented in European cultures by a black man, something that even translated into some early American literature. I can’t find it off hand, but I think there is a Washington Irving story out there were the devil visits a farmer/traveler/village several times, and is described in no uncertain terms as having black skin. In this “enslaved devil” guise, Piet was the threat of punishment for wicked children, and would either beat them, or put them in his sack to haul away to Spain… or both.

That’s the more uncomfortable origin of Zwarte Piet, but the more tasteful version is that he (or “they”) was one of the three children saved by St. Nicholas. It’s a tale that probably won’t make it to a Christmas special near you, but the story goes that St. Nicholas was able to resurrect three children that had been killed by a butcher and put into a stew. In gratitude, one or more of the children decided to follow St. Nicholas as servants, and in this case, the darkness of the Pietens’ skin is explained as chimney soot, as they are the ones who travel down the chimneys to leave presents for children. I think that’s the version of the story as told to kids these days.

In a contemporary context, the Pieten of Sinterklaas seem almost interchangeable with Santa Claus‘s elves. I don’t think toy manufacturing is part of the Sinterklaas tradition, but the Pieten are certainly function as his “crew”, so to speak, both literally on the boat, and figuratively on land. These days, the Pieten are also becoming more specialized in depiction, where, like the Smurfs, each individual Piet is associated with some sort of archetype or role. There is a “Navigator Pete”, for example, as well as “Professor Pete”, “Cool Pete”, and so on. We even saw what seemed to be an “Elvis Pete” yesterday. Again, this isn’t too different from Santa’s elves, which can sometimes be depicted as a homogenous rabble, or as having particular roles at the North Pole.

Origins aside, what strikes me the oddest about Zwarte Pieten is the seeming continued emphasis of the “Zwarte”… the blackness of the Petes. When folks portray Piet, they do so not only by costume (often that of a renaissance page), but by blackening their skin, and wearing bright red lipstick, gold jewelry, and often a black wig of some sort. The combination of the make-up and mischievous antics call to mind the characteristics of minstrel shows in the United States, and, I think, raise the same controversies here. In some ways, the Pieten could be viewed as a positive cultural force because they contribute to an atmosphere of fun and celebration (rather than the captive menace of wickedness, as in the enslaved devil motif), but they also seem… well, stereotypical in the same sense as the minstrel shows of 19th and 20th century America. The Pieten are often child-like adults, being fun-loving, mischievous, and perhaps a little wild and unruly, themes that were often present in minstrel shows, and which, frankly, persist subtly in American media to this day.

The Nertherlands is, of course, a multi-racial and ethnically dynamic country, and as such, Zwarte Piet is not without controversy. Will change come to Zwarte Piet? Maybe… I understand there have been experiments in the past to try to move beyond the Zwarte factor, depicting the Pieten as being more rainbow colored, but I think it struck many as being manufactured, and so Zwarte Pieten remain Zwarte.

So, while the practice may seem incredibly odd to this cultural outsider, I’m sure we Americans have traditions of our own that are considered terribly gauche to visitors. Many of our seemingly innocent childhood icons and holiday practices are likely offensive to someone, even though we might not think of it (I’m thinking of you, Looney Toons). What will the future hold for Zwarte Piet? We’ll find out, I suppose. Perhaps they will become a quaint icon of the past, quietly tucked away as a tradition of Sinterklaas Past. Most likely, they’ll still be around, and continue their journey, slightly revised (by intent or accident) each year. I noticed yesterday that most of the children were not excited to see “Zwarte Pieten”, but simply exclaimed “Pieten!” as the colorfully clothed figures came into view. In fact, that’s something that I’ll have to watch for in the coming weeks– how often are the Pieten referred to specifically as Zwarte? Maybe over time, they’ll just be plain old Pieten– the helpers of Sinterklaas who just happen to have a different skin color, but aren’t defined by it.

Alright, this has become a very long post, and made me think of a lot of interesting things. It’s made me think a lot about depictions of race in America too, which might take the form of a follow-up post later. It’s only fair that I turn the magnifying glass the other way every once in a while.

All in all, Lorie and I had a good time at the Sinterklaas arrival. It was a fun combination of something familiar, combined with the weirdness of feeling like we were being visited by a foreign dignitary… there seems to be little more fanfare associated with Sinterklaas than Santa, and I kept feeling like we were waiting for an actual head-of-state or diplomat, rather than a kindly giver-of-gifts to children. In fact, because of his bishops’ vestments, I kind of felt like we were all watching the arrival of a pope of sorts, with the Pieten being a variation of the Swiss Guard that distributed treats.

It’s also had the side effect of feeling like the Christmas season has started now, despite the fact that it’s still a few weeks before Thanksgiving. It will be a little odd to leave the Netherlands at about the time Sinterklaas returns to Spain, only to get home to the United States at about the same time Santa Claus shows up in our communities!

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