Thursday, 4 December 2008


Sinterklaas was a bishop who lived somewhere between the years 200-300 in Myra, a city in then the Bizantine Empire (today Turkey). He was very good to children, always fighting for their rights (one would say today, then was feeding, clothing them, taking them out of prostitution). When he died he was made patron saint of childhood. When the muslims took over what now is Turkey, his remains were taken to Bari, in Italy (he is San Nicola de Bari, pilgrims go there eeeevery year, very famous place).
Now, apparently, when Nicola retired from his bishop career, he moved to Spain. He started then this fashion which goes on until today for every retired person in Europe to move to Spain. When you go to Spain these days you never know whether you are in Sweden, England, Germany, The Netherlands or...indeed Costa Brava or Madrid. Quite surreal, Dali would be proud.
Back then, the character of our story, took a servant or helper whatever you want to call it, Zwarte Piet: Peter the Black or something similar. Some say he was a morish servant.
Anyway, once a year, Sinter and Zwarte Piet sail from Spain to The Netherlands bringing Americo, Sinter's white horse with which Sinter will ride around the kingdom checking that children have been good.
For a month previous to the 5th of December, the actual day of gift exchange, children leave their shoes at night along with a carrot and water for Sinter's horse. In the morning they find in exchange candy, nuts, peanuts, fruits, small gifts. These derives from the middle age's custom of poor people leaving their shoes in churches at this time of the year so the rich people could put a coin in it. The fruits and nuts is a pagan custom. For those who aren't european, you have to understand that in this time of the year, everything looks dead here. Grey, cold, lifeless. Nuts and fruits (apples and pears, the last crops of the Autumn's crops) symbolized more fertile moments... in the dark and middle ages, fruits and nuts were spread on furniture, even the floor as a way of paying tribute to mother earth... and wishing reaaaaally badly the sun came out already so they wouldn't have to freeze their buts anymore and could eat something decent!

So, on the 5th (in NL and ex-colonies /6th in Belgium) Sinter comes and presents are exchanged. You are asigned one family member to whom you have to write a satiric poem about things he/she did during the past year and give a surprise, something funny.

Now, that is sort of the story. How did it go from San Nicolai to Sinterklaas... you know.. fonetics. I can tell you how it went from Sinterklaas to Santa Claus (if you say the first really fast, it kinda sounds like the second).
One upon a time (1600s) New York was New Amsterdam. The place had been populated by dutch immigrats, those running from the religious persecution in this country. There they followed their traditions, among which was...Sinterklaas. American Revolution... the english or new americans (not sure about this) took over New Amsterdam and re named it New York (see how smart this pilgrims...everybody followed the same formula to name their new territories: NEW + city from birth place which they miss like crazy). The english not being able to cope with the difficult dutch fonetics (who can!) called it Santa Claus...

OK.. long enough? There are of course several different versions of all this. This one is the one that kinda matches more historical events and I don't know... I like it better.
In this family we have Sinterklaas a couple of times: Friday with grandma, uncles, cousins, etc... saturday with parents in law, bro in law... sunday I sleep due to headache (try to follow a whole lot of dutch people speakign at the same time). Monday I go to the dentist with tooth pain after tons of candy (because it is all accompanied with candy...marzipan, chocolate, sugar coated nuts... all yum!), tuesday I go to the gym and run for hours in a futile attempt to burn a tenth of all this! :)

Here is Sinter:

And that was all for today class... we will return tomorrow :)


painted fish studio said...

thanks for the lesson! :) it reminds me of a story a humorous essayist tells about coming to the netherlands and learning about the dutch "santa". if you have time, read david sedaris's "six to eight black men". it's more funny to hear him tell it, but reading it is fun, too! :)

happy sinterklaas!

Tweed Delights said...

How cool - I enjoyed your lesson - very educational :-)!! I'll check back for more tomorrow!

edward and lilly said...

This is fascinating, I'll be back for more tomorrow.

Marian said...

Fishy, I will check out the link, thanks!
Tweed, thanks!
Edward and lilly, thank you!

Well, first Sinterclaas day happened, another one tonight!

fontainefleurie said...

You did a great job. Thank you by explaining this so in detail. Hope you don't mind, but I made a link to this post in my post in my other blog fiberfusing. wintergreetings DOrie

'fancypicnic' said...

I knew you'd explain if I asked you! Thanks so much for the lecture of the day...I have taken notes, honest! xx

Easterya said...

So interesting!! Loved reading it! Thanks! xx

Marian said...

glad you all enjoyed it. FontaineFleurie, no problem! On my way to your blog!