Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Harbour goes all out to welcome Sinterklaas

One of the paradoxes with which I am so intrigued about the Netherlands is the ceremony of Sinterklaas - a tradition that is enacted and enjoyed by the entire Dutch population (or so it seems) every year from some time in the middle of November until the 5th December, when this venerable old Turkish bishop finally dispenses toys and goodies to the children of the region. Phew! Long sentence huh?
The paradox is this. the Netherlands is held up to the world as socially liberal, very politically correct, and very progressive in its attitudes to its cosmopolitan society. The tradition of Sinterklaas is therefore totally contradictory to this perception. Indeed, the good bishop who is said to travel by ship from Spain (of all places! I mean historically, this was the no no nation!), is accompanied by his helper Zwartepiet, an exceptionally dark skinned young man, dressed in garish stripey clothes and looking very similar to the little toy people of similar colouring and clothing that are now banned in the UK.

Even more astonishing is the fact that in today's ceremony, not only is Sinterklaas accompanied by a dozen or so Zwartepiets, but practically all the children in the country, regardless of ethnic origin, blacken their faces, don equally garish clothing, and flock to the nearest harbour to welcome the old boy and his bevy of piets. For harbours are the thing, and Sinterklaas has to be delivered by boat to begin his progress throughout the country.
Today, he arrived in Rotterdam, and for the first time ever, the residents of the Oude Haven were invited to join a welcoming committee in the form of a small fleet. I'm sorry and a little sad to say I didn't join them for two pertinent reasons: the first being it was cold, grey and windy, and I don't do that happily; the second was that I am barely keeping up with the mountain of marking and exam preparation I have to do before the end of the semester without any such distractions, so didn't feel I could afford the time to take part. Nevertheless, Koos went off on his scooter with his camera to record the event so that I could blog about it. Wonderful man that he is. He followed the fleet and captured some lovely images of our participating neighbours, most of whom had piled on to three or four barges with all their own children. The excuse is of course that it's for the kids, but I heard that one small boy complained so bitterly about the noise the 'grown-ups' were making that he retreated inside the ship in disgust. So...the fun is not only for the kids.
The results of Koos's trail are these lovely pictures. This is Christmas Dutch style, so I hope you enjoy the novelty of it all. I've kept the images small, but you can click on them to view the full size. If you'd like to see the entire slideshow of Koos's pictures follow this link


  1. Great article again, Val. You are such a wordsmith.

  2. Maybe it's not a paradox at all.
    We all need to cling to tradition, be it fantasy or not.
    Maybe a country, bound by social liberalness (a concept which I find a paradox in itself) and political correctness, has to let its hair down sometime. Why not let it be in a way that has become acceptable by tradition?
    That doesn't sound too much like a paradox to me, but I don't live in The Netherlands and have none such experience in foreign lands as you.
    I am learning so much from reading your posts (and other's) that I am learning an entire new dimension on Everything.
    Maybe the so-called "cosmopolitaness" is based on an attempt to overcome being so-called "bourgeois" in a world dominated by everything being cosmopolitan and politically correct.
    i have this distinct feeling im repeating myself...

    I say sit back, relax and enjoy it all!!

    Now I'm going to take a closer look at Koos' photos.


  3. Now that I've watched Koos' slide show, it reminds me of our Santa Claus parade we have here.
    When I was young, my Mum and Dad would bundle us up and drive us into the city (Montreal) and we would sit on the street curb (freezing) and watch the bestest of the best Santa Claus parade go by - with Santa Himself and his reindeer astride the final float.
    I feel so honoured to have such a glimpse into your tradition.
    Koos' photos are simply amazing.
    Have I mentioned that before? lol

  4. I have to make a confession: when I first started reading this post, I thought you had written STINKERklass... which made me giggle madly....
    then I re-read, and giggled at my mistake.
    I love this post, and Koos your photos are wonderful... you two make such a great duo.

  5. Hey Koosje, the words are only enhanced by the photos....thank you!

    Dale, lol, I went round the block a few times reading your comment here myself...maybe that's the paradox too...that this open Dutch society allows room for all sorts of traditions, some that are even considered unacceptable to other less liberal ones...anyway, enough of so glad you enjoyed the wonderful photos and the story itself!

    Do you still have Santa Claus parades in BC at all? expect he is a bit of a Stinkerklaas after nearly a month of trecking round Holland and poking Piets down chimneys! I'm glad it made you giggle though..just what you need now xxx

  6. Hi Val,
    Toronto had its Santa Claus parade today in fact. When we were little it was the Eaton's Santa Claus parade, sponsored by the large dept. store that gave it its name. It was cold and windy here too today, strange after being over 15C just two days ago. November is a strange month here sometimes- very roller coaster-like.

    I love the words and pictures, and all the little details you can spot in Koos' wonderful pictures- the Spanish flag on some of the boats, the names on the barges, all the little things that give it a local flavour. The costumes look like a bright spot on such a winter's day.

    Thanks for sharing! I too am drowning in reporting chores. I find this time of year boring as all hell because of all the marking and inputing for report cards. I managed to sneak a bit of pleasure writing this afternoon after playing frisbee in the park with Whiskey. Look for some new Empty Glass soon to a secret blog near you. ;)


  7. aha, sinterklaas, has now been explained to me. I have always known vaguely of this tradition, but thanks to you Val, I am clarified! thank you. I have always know it as SinterClaus.


  8. Ooh, Anne Marie, I'll try and sneak over there later...I'm off to work again now, but thanks so much for the heads up. The note of sympathetic cameraderie was also welcome. I know you too are often loaded down with the same chores, so it's good to feel connected in our suffering ;)

    Grace, I'm honoured to have provided the service, dear! Thanks a lot xx

  9. Yes, Val.
    We have a wonderful Santa Claus Parade in Invermere - the main business centre for Windermere.
    It started out several years ago with only a couple of floats and has grown to include more floats, a marching band and a bevvy of baton twirlers and some solo acts.
    And, not to forget Santa, himself, who rides in the town's antique fire truck as the Grande Finale.

    I will try to get some good photos this year...

  10. Hey Dale, I'll look forward to seeing them! Roll on, Santa...through the hills and dales...hee hee

  11. Val, I'm came a-wandering because I was curious who this person was who had commented on my blog....

    And I think you are super cool! You live on a barge in the Netherlands! What could be cooler??? Well, I suppose many things, but I am very happy to have discovered your blog (thanks for the Sinterklaas post, by the way, this was very entertaining) and also to have had your input on mine.

    I think I see what Stevie is talking about now, when she so fondly references her friends in the blogosphere...

    so, nice to meet you!

    you know, some friends and i were just asking ourselves if vancouver does a santa claus parade. i would be shocked if it doesnt, but none of us had heard anything.

  12. Okay, I'll bite :)

    What's more progressive than celebrating diversity and wearing bizarre clothing...and dressing up your kids in makeup and bizarre clothing?

    It's all about tradition, right? So if breaking PC and showing the world that the Netherlands is colourful, fun and not afraid to showcase their heritage is a paradox, I say... well, I say I like paradoxes...

    especially non-PC ones...

    But that's just me!

  13. Prettige Kerstdagen

    (I hope that means Merry Christmas!!)


  14. Nice to see you too Mrose ;-) I'm glad you see that Blogdom is a good place to be. I like it a lot too, and there are some fantastic people in this orbit, including Stevie. Come back any time, and I will come and visit you again too. By the way, Dale, who is also from BC, says there's a great Santa parade in Windermere, so there MUST be one in Vancourver...surely!

    Haha, Rache, I do agree with you, really I do, but you have to admit that it is special and a little odd given the climate that exists concerning such traditions in Europe today. And yes, Prettige feestdagen does mean Happy Christmas ;-) the same to you!

  15. Vally, this is wonderful, mad and bizarre. I like it!

    The trouble with living in a country that is so young in terms of non-indigenous settlement is that we have no such cusoms of our own. Our traditions are appropriated from the countries of the people whose ancestors made Australia their home. This means we have a great wealth of diversity in celebration, but without the authentic pedigree; a sort of cod-tradition. I love it all, but it's different from celebrating where those traditions started.

    We are odd though. In the middle of a blazingly hot Christmas, many of us still decorate our trees with faux snow!

    Are go****ogs really banned in the UK? Wow. They did disappear here for a while in the name of PC-ness, until someone came up with a minor thesis "proving" that they were in fact a celebration and not at all dodgy. Now the best boutique-y toy shops have beautiful hand made ones again in many sizes. I had one as a child and loved it - he and my pink teddy bear were best friends.

  16. Great post Vally! It's so fun to read about traditions from other parts of the world and notice that we have them too, just a little modified, matched and adapted to our surroundings and circumstances.
    And we know "Zwartepiet" here, but he is called "Svarte Petter" in my mother tongue :)

  17. In general, I find celebrations that are all around fun for children and adults alike fantastic!

    As for this particular tradition, it IS kind of funny because it's pretty common in all of the more liberal European countries to question older practices that are no longer in accordance with modern ways of thinking. On the other hand, traditions such as this can in a way stay untouched because of the power of tradition - because it is thought that the tradition has value even if some parts of it are not in accordance with modern thinking. Perhaps also the unacceptable parts are not taken seriously; nobody in a liberal society expects that they would, for instance, make people think stereotypically of black people.

    Actually there's a similar, smaller-scale thing among Finnish Christmas traditions: something called Tiernapojat, Star Boys. It's a Christmas pageant, in which kids and young people, in older times just boys, go around performing an adaptation of the Biblical story of Jesus' birth, a play with singing and dialogue. It includes a character called "muriaanein kuningas" = "king of muriaanit". "Muriaani" is a deprecating word similar to "negro" used of black people, and the character usually has a blackened face. Nowadays this Star Boys is quite good business and there are even groups who perform it semi-professionally every Christmas.

  18. Margie, South Africa is much like Australia in its fondness for the old world's traditions, and we, likewise, decorated cones and small fir trees with fake snow and had santa racing around all over the show. However, yes, as far as my research can get me, the little G*****gs are still banned in the UK as being non PC. I also had one as a child. He had blue and white striped trews and a bright red jacket and I just loved him!!

    About Voltaire I had to read him as a student when I was studying French literature, and most of the time, he was deeply serious, and devastatingly satirical, but as I remember it, he did have his frivolous moments, when the satire bordered on farcical...but then that was the character of the day too! The name of the French playwright who was so famous for farce escapes me at the moment, but I think (says she tentatively) he was of the same era.

    Hans, I'm glad you enjoyed it, and I am now discovering young Piet gets around on the continent here. What probably amazes me more than the rest of you is that coming from SA where you wouldn't dare be so bold for obvious reasons, it comes as something of a bewildering surprise to find it's all so celebrated here!

    Maria, so it seems that you too have a story rooted somewhere in this tradition. Thank you for your observant and perceptive comment dear. I think it's true in a way that traditions can remain above the tainting of social labels simply because they are traditions...and I must say I think it's no bad thing in the long run. A country without its traditions would be a barren place indeed.

  19. In Canada, Santa Claus, himself, is the one to squeeze down through chimmnies to leave gifts beneath the trimmed tree.

  20. A great read again Val and I cant add anything to what has already been said, Makes me long for my time back in Rotterdam all over again.

    Great pics


  21. Here's a bit of irreverent holiday trivia....

    It seems that the Santa Claus tradition in the U.S. is a direct descendant of your Sinterklaas.

    Dutch immigrants brought the Sinterklaas tradition to New Amsterdam five or six hundred years ago and, naturally (since even then, Americans couldn't leave anything well-enough alone), we now have our jolly caucasion red elf, living at the North Pole with his helper elves (which I can only deduce is what has become of Zwartpiet on this side of the pond).

    Of course all of Santa's elves (you know, the ones I've actually seen - lol) also appear to be pointy-eared miniature caucasions.....hmmmmm

    Shhhh!! Better not let the affirmative action people get wind of

    Have fun, Val, and I hope you're managing to dig your way out of the paperwork!

  22. ROFL Rache, thanks so much for giving me a really good chuckle at the end of this long and cold week...I love the idea of Zwartepiet metamorphosing into a pointy eared caucasian elf....I wonder what our Turkish bishop would have to say about elves....probably think they were poles dear Rache xxx

  23. Hello Val,

    How lovely to have you visit my little blog. Thanks so much. I have been to the Netherlands twice and both times felt so warmly welcomed and, as a native New Yorker, oddly at home in Amsterdam.

    There is a lot of "post-morteming" going on in California about the marriage vote, but it is always surprising [and alarming] to realize there are people on the street, in the stores and in adjacent cars who just don't think we all deserve the same rights.

    Loved your Sinterklass post. These ancient cultural traditions are so fascinating to me. It sometimes doesn't matter so much what they entail as it does that we've been doing them for so long. The affection for them is in the familiarity. And the comfort of that tradition.

    I look forward to stopping by more regularly. And please do the same should the mood hit you!


  24. Aw, Val, this makes me home-sick!
    Fortunately, some Dutch friends and me are going to have our own little Sinterklaas party on December 5, here in Helsinki. We even have pepernoten! :-)
    Loved to read your bog, and such lovely pictures by Koos!

    Suz xo

  25. Chris, I'm very happy to 'meet' you properly now, and I'll pop by your blog for sure! You are always very welcome here too, and thanks for your response to my comment on yours.... I am a hundred percent with you on the issue of legal and civil rights. I'm glad you enjoyed the Sinterklaas story...I love these Netherlander people I live with.... they have such a prosaic attitude to life most of the time, and then they come up with things like this...I think it's brilliant!

    Suze, you must put some photos of your Sinterklaas party on Flickr!! Can't wait to see them. I know you don't want to come back here to live, but I'm glad I can supply you with some nostalgia every now and then ;-)

  26. Kids in blackface ... interesting. Before I lived in New Orleans I might have been offended by the concept. But during Mardi Gras there is a particular parade called Zulu ... the people ride on floats dressed in blackface and African tribal gear and give away painted coconuts to the crowd. I couldn't understand why black people would wear black face until I learned that once upon a time, African American were prohibited from parading during Mardi Gras ... so the blackened their faces, pretending to be whites masquerading as blacks so that they could participate. I thought that was pretty cool -- it also taught me not to jump to conclusions about cultural celebrations and such unitl I understand the whole history.

  27. Hey another new face on your blog, Vally, and what a great story he has about black people excluded from the parade unless they were painted black.

    And Maria contributing a Finnish word: Muriaani
    Hehe Mari, it's quite like the Dutch word Moriaan, which means Moor.
    Here's a song:

    Moriaantje zo zwart als roet
    Little Moor, as black as soot

    Ging eens wand'len zonder hoed
    Went for a walk without a hat

    Maar de zon scheen op zijn bolletje
    But the sun shone on his little head

    Daarom kocht hij een parasolletje
    That's why he bought an umbrella


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