Celebrating Sinterklaas, With Eyes Wide Open

On Sinterklaas, the author's children Samuel and Joel find gifts in a special package designed like a house. Presents need not be expensive but a lot of effort goes into its surprise packaging.

It is autumn in the Netherlands, and the days are misty and cold. We are moving towards the darkest days of the year—days, which are punctuated by moments of what the Dutch call gezelligheid or warmth.

For the children, the approach of December is filled with expectancy mixed with trepidation. It all starts in mid-November when the children’s friend called Sinterklaas ostensibly arrives in The Netherlands with an escort of black servants, depicted by kids in blackface, called Zwarte Pieten and culminates in the celebration of Sinterklaas’s birthday on the 5th of December. (More, later, about criticisms of the blackface tradition.)

Sinterklaas is modeled after Saint Nicholas of Myra and the black servants come with a story that tells of Saint Nicholas saving the life of a black boy who then insisted on serving the Saint out of gratitude.

Every year, the Saint arrives by steamboat in one of the port cities. It is a complete media spectacle with the Saint descending from his boat on the back of a white horse named Amerigo. The Black Piets escort him in a parade from the harbor to the center of the city, and during the parade, sweets and special cookies are handed out to the crowds that line the streets.
                       
Once Sinterklaas has been announced, children are encouraged to set their shoes on their front door. Songs are sung to the Saint, notes are left for him, and a carrot or cubes of sugar are set for Amerigo. In the morning, the children find a present from the Saint. Mostly, these are special Sinterklaas cookies, chocolate letters (only available at this time of year), or special Sinterklaas chocolates.

Some parents opt to have the Saint leave small toys during the weekends. In the build-up to the 5th of December, older kids who are already in on the secret as to who really plays the Saint start preparing surprises. Presents given or exchanged on the 5th of December need not be large or expensive, but a lot of effort goes into the surprise packaging. Entire websites are dedicated to tips and suggestions—the more elaborate the packaging the more appreciated it is.


My son asks, ‘Why can’t the Piets be white as well as black?’

In seventh grade, one of my son’s classmates made a huge airplane out of papier mache as the surprise package for my son’s present. My son kept the packaging long after the presents were forgotten and gone.

Aside from preparing the surprise packaging, Dutch tradition requires that givers write a humorous rhyme to accompany the package.  During my first Sinterklaas, I spent a lot of time writing a sentimental poem in Dutch for the recipient of my package, only to be met with total bewilderment. Much later, I understood that writing something funny about the recipient was an essential part of this exercise and the aesthetic we associate with poetry writing does not apply here. The funnier your poem is, the more appreciation you are likely to get.

Historically, the celebration of Sinterklaas was much awaited. Eager children also often await the holiday with trepidation. One traditional Sinterklaas ditty has this line in it: “Good children will be given sweets, but bad children will be spanked.” (Wie zoet is krijgt lekkers, wie stout is the roe.)

There are old stories told to children to scare them into good behavior: Sinterklaas leaves presents for well-behaved children. But children who don’t listen and who have been naughty get stuffed in a sack by Black Piet and taken away.

Today, Black Piet’s reputation as a scary man who steals away bad children has been redeemed and redrawn to turn him into less of a nightmare creature and more of a child’s friend. But to completely divest the depiction of Black Piet of racist overtones continues to be met with stubborn resistance by traditionalists.

While the traditional Dutch celebrate this feast with nostalgia, and while this feast is looked back on as a magical event, there are people who are well aware of the problematic message behind the servants in blackface and the history of colonialism and racism behind it. My eldest son is now at an age where he questions the celebration of Sinterklaas. He makes snarky comments on the portrayal of the black servant who is often pictured as bumbling, servile, lazy or stupid.

My son asks, “Why can’t the Piets be white as well as black?”

More on Sinterklaas and the zwarte pieten http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinterklaas 
(Image: www.aanbod.be)

Regardless of these things, we still celebrate the feast for the children. While we acknowledge the problematic aspects of this celebration, we are also aware that we live in a society and culture that is not our own. People are slow to change and resistant to criticism of precious things, and being openly critical is more apt to invite hostility rather than dialogue. 

We celebrate Sinterklaas, but it doesn’t mean we do so with our eyes closed.

  

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (Photo by Leslie Howle)

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
(Photo by Leslie Howle)

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is a Filipina writer living in the Netherlands. She is a volunteer for Stichting Bayanihan and has been its Board Secretary since January. Visit her website at: http://rcloenenruiz.com or follow her on Twitter: @rcloenenruiz.


TIPS FOR NEWCOMERS

  1. Learn the Dutch language. People will tell you that all Dutch people speak English, but it is not the everyday medium of communication. Being able to speak the language decreases the chances of isolation and improves opportunities for making friends and building a network.
  2. Build up your network. One important way of getting settled is to form a good support network. You need people who understand you and what it means to be homesick and to be without the support of your family.
  3. Make yourself known to your embassy. The Philippine Embassy in the Netherlands is a friendly place. I have had positive experiences with the people there. Remember, they are there to help you.
  4. Contact Stichting Bayanihan. It is the Center for Filipina women in the Netherlands. It works for the rights of Filipinas and helps them as they integrate into Dutch society. Stichting Bayanihan is the recipient of the Banaag Award of the 2012 Presidential Awards for Filipino Individuals and Organizations Overseas. Stichting Bayanihan’s website is www.bayanihan.nl.
  5. Whether you are a practicing Christian or not, the church is one place where you can find friends and build a support network. There are Dutch churches everywhere, but there are also Filipino churches in the Netherlands. Word for the World International celebrates its services in Utrecht and its website is www.wordnetherlands.nl. There is also a Catholic community. Most Filipinos know where the celebrations are held as this varies from time to time.

THE PHILIPPINE EMBASSY

Laan Copes van Cattenburch 125
2585 EZ, THE HAGUE
The Netherlands

Telephone Number: +31 (0)7.03.60.48.20
Hotline Number: +31 (0)6.52.61.10.79 (outside normal working hours)