November is almost over, the sky is crystal-clear, the air is freezing, and it's raining rarely. A cold winter is coming! This is probably my favourite time of the year (but I say it at every change of the season so it's not very trustworthy).
I guess in Italy the usual Christmas carousel has already started: a loop of Panettone Bauli ads on TV, flashy gift packs with cheap versions of the traditional zampone-lentils-parmesan, plastic Christmas trees in the shops' windows, garish lights in the streets, and so on.
I won't lie, Christmas is a commercial holiday in the Netherlands as well. It is also less charming than it can be in Italy, since the decorations are few and cheap. But it's not about the much debated Dutch thriftiness - it's that Dutch people are not focused on Christmas at this time of the year.
This is partly because only 50% of the population has some sort of religious belief (the North is generally protestant, the South catholic), so Christmas is just a commercial spree for many. But the main reason, I believe, is that some very important element of Christmas does not exist here...
...brace yourselves for the shock...
...IN THE NETHERLANDS SANTA CLAUS DOES NOT EXIST!
And, being Christmas empty of its religious meaning, not having good old fat Santa is obviously making the whole tradition much less appealing. But of course the Dutch have their own alternative tradition, which is not very different from ours.
The Dutch alter-ego of Santa Claus is Sinterklaas. This guy looks just like Santa, with his white beard and the red clothes, but he's a...catholic bishop. Which is weird since only a small part of the population is catholic (but who cares, actually). Sinterklaas lives in Spain (he must not be fond of the weather here). Around mid-November he travels to the Netherlands on a steamboat (he evidently got fed up with Ryanair, and who can blame him for this). In the Netherlands he goes around on a white horse called Amerigo, who can fly up high over the roofs. Sinterklaas travels together with his helpers, the Zwarte Piets ("Black Peters"), black guys dressed in colourful moorish suits (they actually look like Django when he gets to choose his own outfit).
From mid-November until December 5th there are many parades in every city, where Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Piets distribute sweets and candies to the little ones. The most traditional sweets of this period of the year are pepernoten, small round cinnamon biscuits the size of a coin, that are sold for a few euros in huge dangerous bags. They are incredibly addicting, and the moment you think “this is the last one” and look down at the bag, this is desperately empty. They are even more dangerous in the chocolate-coated version.
The last day of Sinterklaas celebrations is December 5th, when kids put their shoes under the radiator (used to be the fireplace) alongside a carrot for Amerigo and some chocolate for the Piets. The Piets are the ones doing the dirty job, so while Sinterklaas waits comfortably on the roof, they climb down the chimney and leave small gifts for the kids (or salt, if they haven't been good). Such gift can be simple toys or sweets, and always a chocolate letter (the first letter of the child's name). There is also a short poem dedicated to the little receiver. Also adults celebrate Sinterklaas: they gather with friends or family, exchange chocolate letters and poems which often teases the recipient for well-known bad habits or other character deficiencies.
|Sinterklaas arriving into town|
Sinterkaals is not very different from Santa Claus. But the differences that stroke me most are the following:
- Children dress up like Zwarte Piets - you can see hundreds of them every day, and they are so cute with the feather on the hat and the black little face.
- Sinterklaas is not about the gift (to me, Christmas is, eheh). When I was a kid, we chose our gift in advance among a wide range of expensive and useless toys. Here kids are content with the sweets, the parades, the feathered hat, the poems. And it's so much better.
- Zwarte Piets are black, and because of this the Dutch have been accused of being racist. This year a certain Verene Shepherd, head of a group of experts from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, sent a letter to the Dutch government asking for the tradition to abolished. There was a revolution! In a matter of hours a Facebook page in favour of the Zwarte Piets was created, which got 2 million likes (and there are only 16 million people in the Netherlands). Dutch people will tell you that the Piets are black since they climb down the chimney. Which I don't think it's the reason behind that. But I also believe that it is not worth questioning such an old tradition, especially when so many kids are so happy to dress up like a Piet and have their face painted black.
|"Order now Black Klaas and White Peter! (and let's not forget the white horse...)"|
This said, I think the Zwarte Piets costume is pretty ugly... And you can find some really creepy images of Piets around the web...