Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Sint Nicholas, Sinterklaas, Saint Nicholas

The month of December means different things to different people.  The well known celebration for most is, of course, Christmas with all its religious and pagan festivals.  However, earlier in the month Holland, Belgium and France and other Roman Catholic countries celebrate St Nicholas, the patron saint of children.  Other countries also celebrate including North America who call him Santa Claus.

It was alleged that during the American War of Independence, the inhabitants of New York, a former Dutch colonial town known as New Amsterdam, reinvented the Sinterklaas tradition as a symbol of the city's non English past!

Sinterklaas has a long white beard, wears a red bishop's dress and red mitre, or bishop's hat, and holds a long gold coloured staff with a fancy curled top. imageSinterklaas carries a big book with all the children's names in it, which states whether they have been naughty or nice in the past year.

The temperament of Sinterklaas differs in some regions of the Netherlands and Belgium. In the Netherlands Sinterklaas is usually a nice, forgiving person. In Belgium, on the other hand, Sinterklaas is less forgiving (like he used to be in the Netherlands). He can be quite severe and takes naughty children back to Spain when they were not nice. "Saint-Nicolas" rides a white horse which gallops across the roof tops.

Traditionally Sinterklaas has a helper called Zwarte Piet who will give out treats to the children like sweets, ginger biscuits.  image However, if the children have been naughty throughout the year he will fetch the children to stand in front of Sinterklaas to be admonished. Etsy has a very good article about this feast

On the eve of Sinterklaas (5 December) all children place a shoe filled with a carrot, some straw for the white horse.  In the morning these items would be replaced by a traditional chocolate letter (usually their initial), image speculaas (a shortbread type biscuit), chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil and a chocolate figurine of Sinterklaas wrapped in foil.  Songs would be sung to celebrate his coming journey to their houses.

Children were told that Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) looked that way because he had to descend the chimneys which made his hands and face appear black.  If children had been naughty he would leave a bag of salt rather than sweet treats.  If the children had been particularly naughty they were told that they risked being put in a sack and taken back to Spain where Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet lived for the rest of the year.  This story is no longer told as you can imagine!  However, I can well remember those stories when I was a child being brought up in a Dutch colony.  Parents and children would gather in the local community hall where Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet would appear.   With them they carried a golden book with the names of all the children who had been good that year and another book which was black in which the names of naughty children had been recorded.  Sinterklaas would start to look for a child's name in his 'good' book and scare the child by not finding it initially.  For obvious reasons this practice has been discouraged!  However, I remember it well and it put the fear of God into me - not that I had been naughty, of course!!

Nowadays, the feast of Sinterklaas has become as commercialised as any large celebration but it is still fun, especially all the sweet treats!  To learn more about this great tradition visit this link where the history is explained in more detail

So, my friends, I do not have any items to show off from my BBEST friends this time but I just thought this article might be of interest.  Remember to put your shoe outside your room and to put a carrot or straw in it; maybe even a bowl of water.  Who knows, if you have been good Zwarte Piet may leave some sweet treats for you!!!!

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