Thursday, December 22, 2011

And the winner is...Sinter Klaas!

Rebecca here, but just for a minute, because today I am thrilled to be hosting the very talented Leighton Gage. Leighton Gage lives in Brazil and writes crime novels about that country’s federal police. His latest, A Vine in the Blood has been starred by Publisher’s Weekly and dubbed “irresistible” by the Toronto Globe and Mail.The New York Times used exactly the same word to describe his previous book, Every Bitter Thing. After reading it, I can see why. His characters are fun and quirky and his dialogue reminds me of Elmore Leonard's (very high praise indeed!).

For more on Leighton Gage and his books, do visit him on the web at

Without further ado, here’s his contribution on the theme for this week, "Create your own holiday."

When I was a kid, I measured the success of a holiday almost exclusively by the acquisition of stuff. And that drive for the acquisition of stuff was so strong that even now, more than half-a-century on, I can still clearly remember those Christmases where I got (or didn’t get) some particular item I was hoping for.

Then I grew up. And the balance shifted to giving, not receiving.

But giving and receiving remain key elements for my evaluation of a holiday. Another key element is the aspect of sharing, i.e. experiencing the event with others.

Not just with my family, but with the world at large.

Sharing gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling. It makes me feel part of something bigger.

A story, myth, or legend also goes a long way, for me, toward making a holiday special. Even if the story isn’t true. If you’ve ever had joy of the Easter Bunny, or Santa, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

And, oh yeah, special foods. What would Thanksgiving be without turkey?

Give me all of those elements rolled into one and you’ve got my ideal holiday. And ya know what? I don’t have to create it, because the Dutch and the Flemish already have it. It’s called Sinterklaas, and they celebrate it on the 6th of December.

Here’s the story: Back in the third century AD a chap by the name of Nicolaos (that’s our spelling, he wrote it Νικόλαος) was born in a Greek colony called Patara on the Southern Coast of what is now Turkey.

He adopted Christianity, suffered for his faith under the Emperor Diocletian, became a bishop and died on the 6th of December in the year 343.

Flash forward 50 years of so. He was canonized.

Flash forward another 350 years. His remains were transferred to Bari, in present-day Italy.

And placed in this tomb.

Got all that?I hope so, because now it gets complicated.

Bari, in 1442, became a part of the Spanish Empire. Which is why today, half a millennium later, Low Country kids continue to believe that the Sint, as Saint Nicolas, the patron saint of children is affectionately called, comes to visit them from Spain.

Not from Turkey, where he was born. Not from Italy, where his bones lie. But from Spain. And it also explains why they believe he has Moorish servants.Because, back then, lots of people in Spain did.

What it doesn’t explain is why the Netherlands, an overwhelmingly Protestant country, would want to venerate a Catholic saint.

The answer is – they don’t.

In the course of the last half-millennium, the day of Nicolaos’s death has morphed into a secular rather than a religious holiday, even in Northern Belgium, which is largely Catholic, and despite the fact that the Sint appears in the guise of a bishop.

Here’s how he’s portrayed. He brings his horse with him, and he comes by boat. (He’s also the patron saint of sailors.)

In the Low Countries, his journey northward is played up in the newspapers and on television. Journalists interview him, giving him a chance to make critical remarks about how naughty the government and the politicians have been – and what he intends to do about it. But it’s done in a way that goes over the kids’ heads. So they take it all seriously.

They start putting out their shoes, not for one night, but for several. And into them, they put some hay, or a carrot, for the Sint’s horse. The excitement builds.

Very different, as you can see, from Santa Claus. No North Pole, no sleigh, no elves, no reindeer, no stockings. Instead it’s Spain, a boat, Moorish servants, a horse and shoes.

If you’ve been naughty, the Sint could leave your folks a switch to beat you with. And, if you’re really naughty, you could get stuffed into a sack by one of his Moorish servants and carried off to Spain, never to see your parents again.

The people of the Low Countries have been perpetuating these stories, virtually unchanged, for about five hundred years. Have a look at this early seventeenth-century painting from the Dutch painter Jan Steen.

Can you spot who’s been naughty and who’s been nice?

When the Sint finally arrives, he rides his horse through the towns, continuing his mission of rewarding the nice. His Moorish servants, called “Black Petes”, fling sweets to the kids in the crowd.

It’s seldom that you see a black person playing a Black Pete.
Black Petes aren’t supposed to be people with dark skins. They’re supposed to be white people with their faces blackened.
Because that’s how they’ve always looked, and portraying them any other way dilutes their character.

There are lots of other customs connected with Sinterklaas.
One is the writing of silly poems to accompany presents. The poems follow a traditional style and contain hints about what might be within the wrapping. But they’re usually more than that. In them, comments, sometimes rather sharp ones, are generally made about the personality or comportment of the recipient.

The whole family gets presents, and the whole family competes to write the best (worst) poems.

Black Petes also have the task of visiting the homes of the children.
And, when the kids are least expecting it, hands (some families have black gloves squirreled away for this purpose) have a way of appearing through doorways…

… and deluging them with a shower of pepernoten (ginger biscuits).
You’d think the kids would chase them down to the source, wouldn’t you?
But Black Petes are scary – so they don’t.

Then there are the other traditional foods: hot chocolate, and speculaas (gingerbread).

Sometimes filled with marzipan.

And chocolate letters fashioned with the first letter of the recipient’s name.

Best part of it all?
The Low Country folks celebrate Christmas too, so we won’t have to trade one for the other.

What do you think?
Interested in helping me to adopt Sinterklaas?


donna galanti said...

An enjoyable post. I've heard of this holiday but appreciate the rich detail here - and may adopt it! What a fun tradition enveloped in history.

Christiane said...

Here is a reaction from the Low Countries...
You told it all so good!
Sinterklaas is indeed the Holy Man known by every Flemish, Belgian and Dutch child!
When I was young, there was no Santa Claus on Christmas. (catholic nuns at school said he doesn't excists...).
Since the influence of television, Internet, movies... children talk about Santa Claus BUT Sinterklaas remains the favourite!!
Thank you for the nice story!

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Thanks for stopping by, Leighton! Do you suppose I could find one of those marzipan filled cakes, gluten free?

It sounds like great fun! (except I would have worried about being stuffed in the sack).

Leighton Gage said...

There is. (Gluten free speculaas.)
But only in specialized shops.
I also have a recipe.
But only for folks who read Dutch:

lil Gluckstern said...

This is a wonderful story. Does the Sint have any relation to the St. Nicholas of Germany-there are a lot of parallels but not the pomp of his arrival. It seems we could celebrate something all the time in December. Happy Holidays!

Leighton Gage said...

Hi lil,
He's the same historical figure
But, down through the years, and in different countries, the practices around him diverged.