Today is a very special day in the Dutch calendar: the celebration of Sinterklaas (pronounced: “sint-aah-class”).
For all Dutch children, and the child within all Dutch, it’s the big gift giving highlight of the year.
Technically the Sint’s official day is the sixth of December, but for some reason it’s traditional that everything around the “big day” takes place on “St. Nicholas’ Eve” or December fifth.
One thing that the name of St. Nicholas’ Eve might imply, is an image of family gatherings taking place around dining tables and living rooms in the evening, wintery and dark outside and all cosy inside… right?
Ha! Try again… first, try and imagine children who celebrate Christmas, having to wait until bedtime Christmas Day to receive their gifts… not a calm picture on many levels, so it’s for good reason that the Sinterklaas / St. Nicholas’ “Eve” starts as early in the morning as the parents can hold out for.
In our family this generally meant early afternoon, by which time family and friends have arrived and everyone has had some lunch.
This is the moment when a “real/fake” Sint would come to our door with his Big Red Book full of details about the children in the house, what they have been doing, their hobbies and if they have been good children. On occasions, when the “real/fake” Sint had or could not be arranged, kindly neighbour leaves the sack of gifts on the doorstep, rings the bell and gets away before the kids have a chance to get to the door.
This latter option is usually organised at a predetermined time and is preempted by an adult accomplice who “happens” to be by a window and may just “see” Sint sprinting off to deliver somewhere else.
Needless to say, as soon as kids spy the traditional course woven hemp sacks of gifts laying on the doorstep, they completely forget to look for the “departing” Sint.
Should ever a child, first in the history of children, be determined to catch a glimpse of Sint rather than to pay attention to incoming goodies, the accomplice adult can always be relied on to tell a tale of the Sint racing away at magical speed, after all lots more children are still waiting on their gifts etc.
Ok, the rest of course works a lot like Christmas. Which is little wonder since the figure of Sint-Nicolaas (“sint-nick-oh-lars”) is the source of Christmas’s “Santa Claus”.
The man himself is still old with white hair and flowing beard. What’s different is that Sint comes on a white horse called Amerigo and is dressed in Bishop’s robes, covered with a full red cape. On his head he wears a red mitre (pointed hat), has a large ruby ring on his finger and besides the Red Book, holds a long curl-topped shepherd’s staff.
He is assisted my Zwarte Piete(s) who were the chimney-sweeps, and they throw kruidennoten (tiny cookies) and snoep (sweets/candy) for everyone.
Some years if we are very lucky the dessert tray may well contain cake.
Of course tradition states that everyone will eat more than they said they would, that much excitement, squeals and dramatic paper ripping will take place as gifts are unwrapped, that there is certain to be that one gift that is near cemented shut with half a roll of tape and another that almost gets broken before it is unopened. No matter what we will have a fantastic time. Happy Sinterklaas!