Celebrating the birthday of the real Santa Claus on December 6
Last night was St Nicholas Eve--which makes today, December 6th, the birthday of that saintly man, born in a part of the Eastern Roman Empire now known as Turkey. Maybe that's why Sinterklaas always follows Turkey day on our calendar. The good man would have been absolutely astounished to find out what we have made of his birthday and especially the strange mix-up with the day of the traditional zonnewending or solstice on December 25th, as well as with the reputed birth of Jesus the Nazorite, whose own historical birthday was actually on March 1st, seven years before Christ. Being born seven years before your own birthday is no mean miracle--even for someone whose father was supposedly a female deity.
Be that as it may, or not, I can't help but reminisce a bit about the Sinterklaasvieringen (celebrations) as I still remember them from my youth, alas, now so many seasons irretrievably in the long gone past.
In the epicenter of modern Sinterklaasvieringen, which is indisputably the great town of Amsterdam, Sinterklaas would arrive by steamer, not from Turkey, but from Spain. Don't ask me why for I have no idea.
As another aside, the bones of the dear old man now rest not in Izmir, or Smyrna as it used to be called in olden days, but in Bari, in the south of Italy. They were stolen a long time ago by the Barians who saw (and realized) great monetary gain from the display of his saintly remains. But back to Spain and Amsterdam before we move on the Batavia and Sungei Gerong in the ancient Dutch East Indies.
In Spain the man who gave most of his wealth to the poor had an unusual set up: there were salt mines in which stoute Hollandertjes, naughty little Dutch kids, were sent to pay for their bad behaviour of the previous year. If they did well, then they could come back to their family the following Sinterklaas.
Transportation to and from these salt mines in Spain was provided by the socalled Zwarte Pieten or Black Peters, the Saint's loyal Moorish servants, who were as jolly as could be (but only to the good children)--dispensing all sorts of goodies from their large sacks made out of hemp--in particular of course candies: speculaas cookies, chocolade letters, and so on.
These sacks also contained more substantial presents for the really well behaved boys and girls--but such gifts were given most often secretively in the middle of the night of St. Nicholas eve. The Saint and his Pieterbazen, Peterbosses, would clamber over the steep tile roof tops of Dutch houses--the Saint on his magnificent white stallion, or Schimmel, his long white beard and bishop's robes flowing in the wind, while his faithful Peters slipped down the sooty chimneys with their sacks full of presents. I figured that's why their skin was so black.
Down in the hearth the children would have put their little wooden shoes (although in modern times, other footwear has become quite acceptable as well--you can't fight evolution after all) filled with grass for the Schimmel. In the morning it was the time to open the presents, although many a kid could not wait that long and might sneak a peek before then.
But pon attencion, as my old friend Louis used to say, pay attention, when the sacks were finally empty, they served a more disquieting purpose, for the stoute jongens en meisjes, the nauhghty boys and girls, would be stuffed inside them for transportation to the salt mines in Spain, which was unimaginably far away. And mind you, after the Tachtigjarige Oorlog or Eigthty Years War (1568 - 1648), every Dutch schoolkid knew very well that Spain was a particularly unpleasant place to spent a year, never mind the salt mines.
All over the Dutch-speaking world Sinterklaasavond was a great celebration, filled with joyous songs of eager but anxious anticipation--for which little kid could honestly say they had been entirely on their best behavior for the entire year? Quite a few of us had serious doubts and would seek to hide ourselves, but the Saint knew of course everything there was to know about us and would find us in our hiding places.
In the Dutch East Indies, the Sint, or Saint, always arrived by KLM in Batavia--the trip was too long for a steamship--from where he would rapidly visit all the places where he was expected to show up, and that included of course the sleepy little hamlet of Sungei Gerong on the Musi river, where he'd make his entry on the company motor yacht Queen Juliana, and make his way to the Soos, Societeit, or Club. There, seated on the stage he would call up each and every child by name and deal with them according to their merits.
The really bad kids cried out loud, knowing well what awaited them, but most of us hoped for mercy--and usually were treated leniently. And the next day there would invariably be presents to open.
At school one of the anticipatory events was always that the onderwijzer, the teacher of your class was expected to prepare a large drawing of the Sint and entourage--using colored crayons on the backside of blackboard, working on it while the class did their schoolwork. Each class always hoped that their teacher would produce the most fabulous drawing of the entire school--and rarely were disappointed in that.
Another integral part of Sinterklaasavond was the singing of Sinterklaasliedjes, or songs and the composition of Sinterklaasversjes, or poems. Not being much of a poet at myself, I always found that a difficult thing to do, so I won't bore you with any now. But in conclusion let me add some appropriate Youtube video's you might find informative and entertaining.
If you don't understand the Dutch, just watch the action:
The first one shows how de Sint exacts retribution from een stout jongetje, a naughty little boy--Again, actions speak louder than words, so be patient and just watch what happens.
The next reference gives you a variety of Sinterklaas videos--and if you want to find others, just google on: youtube, sinterklaas and you will go directly to a variety of videos, good bad or indifferent, most of them lasting around an average of five minutes.
You may also want to google on whatever else you like, such as for instance: youtube voorthuizen to get one called toktok city Voorthuizen (toktok being an onomatopoeia for this city, reknowned for both chicken and tourism. Kind of like Polk Street, used to be....
Woordafleidkundige voetnoot, etymological footnote: onoma is Greek for name, poieio means to do or to make--hence onomatopoeia means a name that is derived form the sound something makes. The word poetry is derived from poieio as well.
Those of you who have a camera are encouraged to enrich this website by submitting your own funniest videos. Perfection is not required as you can see from them many less than perfect products available on Youtube. I will also include one (just for the fun) of our Dutch Queen Beatrix giving her Troonrede on Prinsjesdag 2007 (which falls always on the third Tuesday of September, marking the opening of the Staten Generaal, States General, i.e. the Dutch Parliament.
But first: Sinterklaas gets naughty: (probably not suitable for the very young or frail)
Various other clips on Sinterklaas:
OK folks, that's it for this year. Hope none of us ends up in the Spanish saltmines.