Today is a very special day for Dutch kids of all ages, all over the world. Today is the day we celebrate the birthday of Saint Nicholas, or as he is affectionately know among the Dutch: Sinterklaas. Or even shorter: Sint. The fun actually started a few weeks ago, on the second Saturday of November, when Sinterklaas and his helpers arrived in The Netherlands on his steamer. From that day on, every evening Dutch children put out their shoes – filled with a carrot for Amerigo, the horse and some candy or fruit for the Pieten (the Pete’s, the helpers) – and then sing a little song for Sint and the Pieten. The next morning, carrots and candies and fruits are exchanged for little presents. Of course, all the doing of the jolly crew of his Holiness Saint Nicholas, who rides over rooftops on his horse Amerigo while working on filling those little (and big) shoes.
It all culminates in the big evening today, 5 December, when families and friends gather around, and celebrate the birthday of Sinterklaas by receiving gifts. Gifts are brought to homes in a big jute bag. Obviously, only those children who have been nice in the past year will receive the nice presents. The naughty ones will get the ‘roe’ – pronounced ‘roo’ – a birch rod. And in extreme cases, they will be put in the jute bag, and taken back to the residence of Saint Nicholas in Spain, which of course leads to some children in their teens claiming to have been very bad, hoping to get a free trip to sunny Spain.
In The Netherlands, this is a big event. A real celebration for children, which is completely separate from Christmas. Sure, the Saint Nicholas character might seem familiar to those who know him as Santa Claus, who does similar stuff around Christmas. This is not so strange, because, well, Sint and Santa are actually the same people. For some strange reason, the Americans at one point decided to take the Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas, and change it around, mix it up with Christmas, and have the poor man move from warm Spain to freezing North Pole. It likely has to do with the end of Dutch rule over New Amsterdam (which you might know now as New York). Come to think of it, it probably were not the Americans, but the English who took over in what is now New York.
But I digress. A big event in the Netherlands, and a very special event for the Dutch expats all over the world. Because Sint not only caters to children living in The Netherlands, but to Dutch children and their friends all over the globe. Amerigo and the Pieten are actually at least as cool as Rudolph and the elves.
So, of course, this year, we had a tiny shoe near the fire place, and sang some songs with our son Baby O, who has been super sweet this year. Tonight, he will be getting some more presents. And for many years to come, no matter where he will live.
Now, some of you might have heard some bad things about the whole celebration of Saint Nicholas. That it might be racist. Well, let me tell you. It isn’t. Nor are the Dutch a racist nation. Sure, there are some rude, offensive and extremely silly people. And also true: some of the elements of the celebration of Sinterklaas might need a bit of an update, because they are offensive to some of the children, which are in reality very much loved by Sint and his helpers. So, let’s drop the depicting of black people as silly and unable to utter decent sentences. Maybe we should focus on an ethnically more diverse Sinterklaas-festival, and be more historically accurate regarding the fact that Saint Nicholas is from Turkey. But most of all, we should focus on what this whole party is actually all about: celebrating the happiness of children.