Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sinterklaas

As Belgians recover from shocking revelations about a certain high-ranking Catholic, their attention turns towards another well-known bishop. He also loves children, but in a different way.

While the drums of Christmas are beating faster every day, Belgians do it a little bit differently than most people. On 6 December they celebrate Saint Nicholas (280-342), the original Santa Claus. He is the patron saint of students, children, prostitutes, and the city of Amsterdam. This is what he looks like:

"Who the hell is Dumbledore?"

Saint Nicholas was a bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey. After his bones were moved to southern Italy in the 11th century, his fame spread throughout Europe. In the Middle Ages people began to hold an annual feast in his honour. The Protestant Reformation put a lid on the celebration in several countries, but it has persisted in Belgium and the Netherlands to this day.

Jan Steen: Het Sint Nicolaasfeest (c. 1665-68)

Sinterklaas has become a feast for the children, more so than the tradition observed in, for instance, North America.

On the eve of 6 December, the death day of Saint Nicholas, Belgian children put their shoes near the fireplace (or central heating unit if they don't have a fireplace) before going to bed. Then the magic happens.

In the middle of the night, hoof-beats are heard on the roof. Sinterklaas has arrived on his great grey steed, Slecht-Weer-Vandaag ("Bad-Weather-Today", named for the usual weather around 6 December). With him is his servant, Zwarte Piet, who puts all the naughty children into his bag. Sinterklaas keeps track of who's been naughty or nice with the big book he's always carrying around.

While Sinterklaas' horse is happily munching on carrots, hay, water and sugar lumps left for him by the devoted children, Sinterklaas himself leaves presents for the children. The next morning, the children storm downstairs to find their shoes full of presents and tasty treats: chocolate letters (usually the first letter in the child's name), tangerines, gingerbread cookies (known as speculaas), pepernoten and much more. "Danku Sinterklaasje!" their little voices cry out in gratitude.

Every year, thousands of white people dress up as Zwarte Piet
and join in the fight against political correctness in the Benelux.

In the face of Sinterklaas' awesomeness, the idea of a sled pulled by
a team of flying reindeer suddenly seems very stupid to me.

Like Santa Claus, Sinterklaas makes many public appearances in the weeks leading up to his feast day. This year he also got his own horror film. Sint opens in Dutch theatres on November 11. It looks like a blend of Miracle on 34th Street and Nightmare On Elm Street. Here's the trailer.



Happy holidays, everyone.



All photos: Wikimedia

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