Monday, December 13, 2010


A very old Dutch tradition is the celebration of Sinterklaas, a "legend based on historical facts".  Sint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, was a bishop in Turkey in the 4th century. As a bishop he was credited with saving his town from starvation, reviving three dead children and offering gifts of dowries to poor girls.  After he died his powers continued to grow; sailors were able to calm stormy seas by invoking his name. Sinterklaas' generosity led to the custom of giving gifts to children on the day of his death, December 6th.   This tradition probably migrated to Holland due to the large Dutch sailing fleet.

The Dutch have done an excellent job keeping this tradition alive for hundreds of years.  Every year, they choose a town for Sinterklaas' arrival in mid November.  He arrives from Spain in a boat with his helper Zwarte Pete (Black Pete).    After the official arrival, many "Helper Sints" arrive at other towns, with parades and a large number of Zwarte Pete's (600 in Amsterdam).  Sint spends the second half of November visiting all the boys and girls to see what is on their wish list.   Children are also told that if they misbehave, Zwarte Pete will put them in a sack and take them back to Spain -- maybe that's why there are so many Zwarte Pete's? 

As with any legend, many questions are unanswered.  None of the locals could tell me who chooses the official Sinterklaas arrival town each year.  I'm sure the competition rivals that of nations vying to host the World Cup.  It is widely accepted that Sint spends the off-season in Spain, but no one seems to know why.  Especially since the real Sint lived in Turkey.  Questions like these are clearly the result of adults meddling in a children's holiday and are typically only raised by foreigners. 

Leading up to December 6th, children will put out their shoes once or twice to receive a small present or sweet from the Sint.  Then on the eve of the big day, Sint leaves a sack on the doorstep of the home.  The sack will contain 1-2 gifts for the people in the home.  Dutch tradition calls for the gifts to be wrapped creatively, i.e. many nested boxes or a model of how the gift will be used, etc.  The gifts will also have a poem about the person receiving the gift, usually poking fun at them.   Can you imagine our family gift exchange with this level of expectations?  No more buying my brother Tom a model and having Mom wrap it the night before.   

So how did we celebrate Sinterklaas?  We went to the Wassenaar "Harbor" to see the Helper Sint arrive by boat.  Before his arrival they were playing Sinterklaas songs over the loudspeakers.  But he must have been late because they ran out of Sint Music and switched over to Europop.  No one seemed to mind; the Sinterklaas songs were pretty dull.  Our town is pretty small so we only had about 30 Zwarte Petes. 

The crowds await Sint's arrival in Wassenaar

Zwarte Pete ala Harry Potter

When I asked Grant why he hadn't been putting out his shoes at night, he replied "What do you mean?  My shoes are out everynight"...along with his clothes from the day, backpack, etc.  Touche' to the teenager.  I informed him that Sint needed proper shoes to put the treats in, so we got with the program and put out some wooden shoes.  True to the tradition, Sint came through with some gifts.  This is one time it pays to have big feet.

How could the Sint have missed these? 

Official Shoes
 Grant had not one, but two gift exchanges at school.  That meant two creatively wrapped gifts and two poems.  He came through though.   He built a cardboard laptop computer to hold a gift for one of his keyboarding friends.  And he made a supersize Jolly Rancher to hold real candy of the same name for his second gift.  (FYI....Jolly Ranchers were started in Golden Colorado in 1949.  The name was chosen to suggest a hospitable, Western company). 

I also took a Dutch Sinterklaas Treats cooking class.  We made speculaas, a Dutch spiced cookie.  You put the dough in wooden molds to form it before baking.   The older versions of these molds are very popular antiques.  We also made Dutch Letters, a roll of almond paste surrounded by pastry dough.  We've actually eaten these before in the US; Jaarsma's Bakery in Pella, Iowa makes wonderful Dutch Letters all year round.  Jaarsma's letters are typically "S's".  In Holland the bakeries typically make M's.  The curves in these letters require some skill to make.  As you can see from the picture, I made a hyphen. 

My baking results.  Sinterklaas Speculaas on the left.  Dutch letter (or hyphen) on the right. 

Although I'm not sure that we needed another holiday between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we enjoyed our first Sinterklaas.  The Sint has performed his annual duty and is now on his way back to sunny Spain. 

Zwarte Pete Band

The Sint has arrived!  Let the parade begin.

Rolls Royce's answer to the El Camino

Our Sinterklaas Treat Cooking smelled so good that Sinterklaas had to come visit us. Note the book with the list of names. 

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