09 December 2011

Christmas time in Haarlem

Posted in Talking about . . .

Some significant differences and some similarities . . .

I noticed that, while lights went up in the main pedestrian malls (a silhouette of the Grote Kerk), and people started putting wreaths on their front doors (mainly fresh berries and leaves woven together) around the beginning of November, we weren’t assaulted by the tinny carols, Father Christmases, and masses of tackiness that begin about that time in the English-speaking world. Then in about the middle of November, I started noticing figurines depicting St Nicholas (Sinterklaas) and his helpers, Zwarte Pieten appearing in shop windows. Now, Sinterklaas looked pretty familiar – chubby chap with a full white beard dressed in red (although this one wears red and gold clerical garb and a bishop’s mitre and rides a white horse). However, I wasn’t at all familiar with Zwarte Piet. Zwart means black, and this chap (usually depicted as an adolescent) has a black face and black hands, and is dressed like 17th century pageboy, with a white ruffle around his neck, and a chimney-sweep’s broom (like a willow branch switch) in his hand. There were lots of golliwog dolls in shop windows and dolls looking like St Nicholas. So what’s the story?

Well, the story is that Saint Nicholas and his Zwarte Pieten (Black Peters, who are his helpers – a bit like Santa’s elves) travel from Spain to the Netherlands by boat in mid-November. Their arrival is announced by parades in the cities and towns, and their entry into Amsterdam is televised nationally. From the time they arrive until the eve (5 December) of the saint’s birthday (6 December), they go around putting little treats (often a marzipan or chocolate fancy or tiny toy) into children’s shoes, which have been left out at night. The children leave a carrot or some hay out for the horse (at the back door if there’s no chimney), and sing a Sinterklaas song before they go to bed. So children may get a treat each night or every second night in the time leading up to the 5th. Then, on the night of the 5th, the big gifts are left instead of little treats – often presented in a sack. The idea is that there is a knock on the back door and the children are sent to open it – to find the sack and no trace of Sinterklaas or the Zwarte Pieten. If there is a chimney, the sack is found next to the chimney.

Zwarte Piet’s switch represents what happens to children who have been naughty, while Sinterklaas’ treats represent what happens to children who have been good. In the past, misbehaving children were threatened with Zwarte Piet’s switch, or with being carried away by Zwarte Piet in a sack to Spain!

The tradition of Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten is tied up with the history of the Netherlands. Saint Nicholas was a Greek bishop in the middle ages, and his remains ended up within the domain of Spain – part of the Moorish empire (that’s where Zwarte Piet came in). As a predominantly Roman Catholic country in the middle ages, the Netherlands picked up the story of St Nicholas travelling to the Netherlands with his Moorish pageboy. Thus, the story evolved that Sinterklaas comes from Spain with his black helpers. He is also the patron saint of sailors and children, and hence the emphasis on children and his mode of transport being a ship. In the middle ages there was also a tradition of putting money in the shoes of the poor during the feast of St Nicholas and hence, the treats in the children’s shoes. It’s really interesting to see how history shapes these traditions.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieten

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieten

Zwarte Piet Zwarte Piet and his switch

From Left to Right: Zwarte Piet, Zwarte Piet and his switch

Marzipan Treats

Marzipan Treats

It is my understanding that the tradition has come in for a considerable amount of flak in the past few decades, as the number of people of colour has become a significant proportion of the population in the Netherlands. There is a move to change the tradition because it is considered racist to have Santa’s “servants” depicted as black people. Many parents explain Zwarte Piet’s skin colour to their children as the result of climbing up and down chimneys and becoming black with soot. And I certainly didn’t see him with a switch! However, there is a conservative lobby who insist that changing this tradition will contribute to the dilution of Dutch culture.

So, the weekend before the 5th December is a frenzy of shopping activity with Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieten all over town. The gorgeous traditional Dutch almond and fruit breads and pastries are everywhere (the classics are a fruit bread and a flaky pastry roll filled with almond paste), and there are also letters of the alphabet in chocolate and pastry, which find their way into children’s shoes (the first letter of the child’s name). All the shops advertise gift ideas, and the toy shops go crazy! We got a chance to take part in the festivities because Denny and Helma (he has been hosting BDH at the University of Amsterdam) and their children spent Sunday 5th with us. So I went out and bought gifts and a sack and it all went swimmingly. We told them that we found the sack at the front door with a note asking us to give the sack to Kick and Freya Borsboom. Lots of fun!

Kerstkrans Kerstkranse

From Left to Right: Kerstkrans, Kerstkranse

BDH Sinterklaas Kick and Freya enjoying presents

From Left to Right: BDH Sinterklaas, Kick and Freya enjoying presents

It’s only after the 6th December that the Xmas trees appear with the familiar decorations, but interestingly, the shop windows are promoting party season rather than gift ideas. So, it’s about gorgeous clothes and making merry rather than gift-giving. Still no Christmas carols, thankfully. People make different shaped, beautifully decorated biscuits with a hole through the middle and hang these biscuits by ribbons on the tree. The biscuits are often flavored with cinnamon or ginger. At night, you can see lovely candles or Advent star lights in the windows of people’s homes.

Cookies! Cookies! Cookies!


Many people here are resisting the introduction of Christmas gift-giving, preferring to keep Christmas Day and the day afterwards as days on which people gather together and enjoy meals without gifts. I have to say, I quite like the idea of getting the presents over and done with in early December and then just concentrating on getting family and friends together on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Wonder whether it would catch on in the English-speaking world? Maybe we're also scared to let our traditions evolve as geographical, ethnic, and cultural boundaries blur in the 21st century . . .

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Comments (1)

  • corina
    13 December 2011 at 21:28 |

    mmmmm....I LOVE marzipan. Know where Im going next xmas

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