I remember the fear I had as a kid, when a man in a red robe and a white beard kindly invited me to sit on his lap and asked me if I have been good, while men with black painted faces and jute bags over their shoulders would squint their eyes at me, promising to put me in their bag if it turns out that I have been bad.
A couple of years later I sat on the lap of another white bearded man in red pants and a red jacket who is now accompanied by friendly elves and reindeers. A little girl cannot help but wonder: Is this the same man who wore a red robe and now changed into a more practical type of outfit? What happened to the men with face paint? Were they forever gone?
Sinterklaas & Zwarte Piet
The man in the red robe and the face painted men are still very much live and my family attended their yearly ‘arrival’ last week at the Erasmus huis in Kuningan. His name is Sinterklaas and he is a saint who, according to the songs and stories, lives in Spain with a bunch of helpers called Zwarte Piet, also known as the black peets. The folklore tale of Sinterklaas and the celebration of his day on the 5th of December are essential to the Dutch culture and a highly anticipated event for children.
Who are Sinterklaas & Zwarte Piet?
Sinterklaas is supposed to refer to Saint Nicholas, a protector of children. The robe and bishop-like hat reflect his Catholic origins. The black peets are his helpers and they are also meant to symbolize punishment for kids who have been naughty. There has been a lot of controversy about their existence. Why are black figures considered as helpers (in Dutch also known as ‘knecht’ or similar to the Indonesian ‘kenek”)? And how is it correct to familiarize children with black figures as being inferior and bad?
When is Sinterklaas coming?
All the controversy aside, Sinterklaas is still a big thing in Holland. On the last weekend in November, his steamboat from Spain arrives at the docks of Amsterdam and the crowd welcomes him as a true celebrity. This arrival ritual (or the ‘intocht’ in Dutch) is done at many other countries with Dutch communities.
In the past few years, the Sint’s arrival in Jakarta has been on an Ojek, a Becak or on a tour boat at Taman Mini.
On the night before the 5th, he starts distributing the gifts through the chimney. Sinterklaas goes from chimney to chimney by riding his white horse on the rooftops, accompanied by the peets. The kids have their shoes prepared next to the chimney and the Sint puts the gifts into their shoe. Considerate kids will have a carrot in the shoe as a snack for the Sint’s horse.
On the Sinterklaas day itself, older children and adults celebrate by exchanging gifts and Sinterklaas rhymes. The gifts are not wrapped in beautiful paper, but they are hidden in self-made constructions. This is called a surprise (pronounced as sur-pree-zeuh) and most Dutch folks spend absolutely weeks to prepare the constructions for perhaps a 5 euro worth of gift.
Typical Sinterklaas goodies:
Yummy speculaas, pepernoten, schuimpjes and chocolate letters!
Santa Claus and the Elves
Ho ho ho! Here is the merry man of Christmas, the friendly grandpa from a secret location in the North Pole, loading up and spreading gifts from his sleigh pulled by flying reindeers.
Wikipedia tells me that Santa too has his origins from Saint Nicholas. We see many similarities with Sinterklaas, such as distributing gifts on the night before the big day and of course the similarities in physical appearance (although Sinterklaas is more like Gandalf and Santa like Gimli).
When is Santa Claus coming to town?
A figure of Christmas, he comes and brings goodness on Christmas eve. Gifts are dropped off below the Christmas tree and he fills up the socks with sweets. Considerate families leave out a treat for Santa, such as a plate of cookies, or carrots and hay for the reindeers.
Santa Claus goodies:
Gingerbread, sugar cookies, candy canes!
For more reading about Christmas Eve rituals around the world, check this out!
Whatever you plan on celebrating, Sinterklaas or Santa Claus, remember to always behave and do good! Have a wonderful holiday.