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Nov 11

Christmas Traditions of the Netherlands – 11.11.11

Sinterklaas kapoentje 

HO! HO! HO! 

Very busy day today ~ last minute prep for the upcoming Sint & Piet Day festival here in the Netherlands. To be honest, it’s really the feast of St Martin first, then its Sint & Piet day. Prior to Sinterklaas’ arrival, on the evening of St Martin’s day, children celebrate by going door-to-door with paper lanterns in hand singing Christmas songs in return for candy; some sort of a cross between Christmas carolling and Halloween ~ which is what I am running around preparing for this evening. They carry the most colourful lanterns to light their way; I wonder if there is some significance to this practice. I totally forgot about today and I am now flying about doing things in preparation because Emma from next door dropped by to return a plate and reminded me about tonights festivities. She’s like, “Make sure you have candy!!” She herself was on the way out to the store to stock up. She also informed me that one can never be sure how many kids will turn up, but stock up none the less. So I went out and I came home with € 30 worth of candy; a bag costing roughly € 1 – € 2. Bought a clear plastic bowl to put it all in and some “Zwarte Piet” (Black Pete) hats. Lol! But I love getting into the swing of tradition, especially if it is in any way related to Christmas.

So anyway, in all my enthusiasm I went out and bought bags and bags worth of candy ~ Kit Kats, Twix, toffees, gold coins, candy canes …etc. I even made Nutella cookies! I baked two batches and got almost 90 cookies. I waited anxiously for night to fall and even hung Sinterklaas flags on the front door to ensure visiting kids would know this was a Sinterklaas-friendly house. It is now 10 pm and so far only 3 people have turned up. 🙁 Soooooooo upset!

First bunch were two extremely well behaved kids with their colourful lanterns, accompanied by their mommy. They sang to Claire and I a song we did not understand, but we clapped our hands and cheered them anyway. Then we brought out the goodies and they only took a candy and a cookie each. The second lot was a boy of about 12 yrs of age with his kid brother. They were very lively … probably already on a sugar high … singing wildly, lanterns swinging and bobbing their heads. They too were careful with their choices of candy and took a cookie each. Five minutes later they were back … the sneaky buggers! The doorbell was ringing like crazy and a crazed cackling could be heard on the other side of the door. We opened it and there they were, singing for their candy. This time they had lost their inhibitions ~ eyes all but glued to the candy bowl and they plunged their fists into the candy bowl picking out one of each thing that was in there. Then they scampered off in the hope of scoring big with the neighbours next door.

Fifteen minutes later our doorbell went off again and I was pretty sure it was the pair again … but it wasn’t. Well, actually it was but they were practicing some restraint this time. They had merely accompanied a girl to our door and she sang us our song with enthusiasm and picked a few pieces of candy for herself along with a cookie. Since then there hasn’t been another person at the door. I am devastated!! There is so much candy in the house and I know there is only one person who would be glad of this … R! He is going to indulge himself with all the leftover candy over the weekend and will probably have the biggest toothache of his life. Oh well, its once a year I suppose. Better just sit back and enjoy the lead up to Christmas with a few indulgences.

*Hides cookie and candy bowl from sight*

 

 

Two days after St Martin’s day Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands. The tradition of St Nicholas and his black servant ~ Zwarte Piet ~ arriving in the country is celebrated every year roughly about the 2nd week of November; this year is being held on Sunday the 13th.  The entire community gets involved and kids dress up in colourful clothes and feathered hats. St Nick usually arrives amid much pomp and pagentry, on a steamboat, having supposedly travelled from Madrid, Spain. I don’t know if he really travels all the way from Spain but yeah … he comes laden with gifts in a sack, and his black helpers assist him to give out candy, typically Kruidnoten*, to all the good children as well as provide some amusement. The naughty children are supposedly spanked with a bunch of birch twigs called ‘roe‘. Haha … LOVE IT!

*Kruidnoten ~ translated meaning ‘Ginger Nuts’ or ‘Spiced Nuts’. These are small crunchie cookies that are hard like nutshells traditionally associated with the Sinterklaas holidays in the Netherlands and Belgium. The main ingredients are flour, sugar, anise, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. During the Sinterklaas celebrations a parade through the city is held and these cookies are handed out by the handfuls to the waiting children lining the street.

 

The arrival of St Nick and his "Zwarte Pieten" up a canal ~ photo courtesy of www.wikipedia.org

 

 This tradition of having Sinterklaas arrive by boat to a city has been practiced for many generations, as far back as the pre-Christian eras, all across the Germanic territories, certain parts of France, parts of Central Europe and the Balkans. It’s actual origins are unclear but parallels have been drawn between Sinterklaas and the pagan god, Odin, who was worshipped in these parts of Europe prior to the arrival of Christianity. It was said that Odin “rode across the skies upon his grey horse carrying a spear and flanked by black ravens”. In the following centuries the lore goes that Sinterklaas rides over rooftops on his white horse, carries a staff and has mischevious black-faced helpers following him.

Another version of the folklore alleges that Saint Nicholas once rescued and liberated a black slave from a life of eternal servitude. Overcome by gratitude, the young boy pledged his service to Saint Nicholas and followed him wherever he went and assisted him on his holiday travels.

These days, due to the prospect of negative racial connotations, Pete is no longer presented as a black servant of African origins. Rather he is now black in the face because of all the soot from chimneys he climbs down to place presents in children’s shoes. Whatever the message, political correctness or not, its still just a nice way to herald in the spirit of Christmas and a parade is held in honour of “Father Christmas”. He arrives at the harbour, gets greeted by the city officials and then he mounts his white steed and carries on with the parade. He waves enthusiastically to the crowd and shakes the hands of children. The Peiten run around doing silly things like dancing, singing, playing musical instruments, riding bicycles and distributing sweets to kids. And no, no kids get thrashed with a birch stick; neither do they get spirited away in burlap sacks back to Madrid. Hilarious!!

 

BLACK PETE.

The “zwarte Pieten” or black Petes are typically young adolescent boys dressed in colourful page outfits with a feathered cap and a frilly lace collar. Their faces are painted black; their lips a bright red and their hair is a mop of curly black. Gold earrings and other gold jewellery are also worn. They walk around the city throwing candy to little children and passers-by. Children are warned by their parents that the good children receive presents and treats from the Piets, while the naughty ones are bundled up in a large buralp sack and carried off back to Spain as punishment. Those who aren’t so naughty receive a spanking with a “roe”, which is a bundle of birch twigs. Zwarte Pieten are often portrayed as mischievous but rarely mean-spirited characters, and the pagentry is all done in the spirit of fun.

 

SINTERKLAAS.

 Sinterklaas is usually portrayed as an elderly gentleman, full of wisdom and a shaggy white beard that makes him look all the more serious and stately. A pointy bishops hat completes the look, along with red flowing robes and a crooked staff. If he wasn’t quite so red and festive looking I’d say he looks a tad like Gandalf! Hehee…

But why is he from Spain??

Well he isn’t, really. The story of Sinterklaas has obviously gotten a bit skewed over the past century or so. After much reading on the subject myself, I think I understand a whole lot better, for I was also very confused to begin with.

Traditional gifts and treats often associated with Sinterklaas include marzipan, kruidnoten, pepernoten, speculaas, chocolate alphabets, chocolate coins and Mandarin oranges. Now it is these oranges that led to the misconception that if he came bearing gifts of oranges in winter then he had to be from Spain, when all he really did was travel TO Spain, collect the oranges and return to the shores of the Netherlands. So as you can see the sole connection Sinterklaas ever had with Spain were these oranges but overtime people simply forgot this bit and suddenly Madrid became Sinterklaas’ home. Wonder if anyone ever asked the old chap how he felt about that.

 

Typical outfits worn on Sinterklaas day ~ pictures from www.wikipedia.org

 

 

 My Sinterklaas Experience ~ 13th Nov 2011.

This day dawned rather crisp and chilly. Claire did well to leave the day before (back to Kuala Lumpur after her 3 week visit) otherwise she’d freeze. R and I looked up the Sinterklaas parade schedule and it said Saint Nick would be arriving at the Amsterdam harbour roughly about noon. So at 10:30 a.m we hopped on our bikes and made our way into the city. It was fortunate we decided to ride because we found out when we got to the city that all bus and tram services were either re-routed or didn’t exist al all. Roads were closed and baracaded all over from the Ship Museum to Central Station right down to Leidseplein.

We parked our bikes close to the Ship Museum and walked the rest of the way to the harbour. There was already a crowd gathered there, on the road and on the bridges. People pulled up in their private and charted boats and parked along the walls of the harbour. Kids in Piet livery (and life jackets) stood on the roofs of boats screaming and dancing. A Zwarte Piet band was entertaining the crowd by singing all manner of jinggles, none of which I could understand. I had with me my Pieten hat and a home-made flag taped to a plastic rod. The atmosphere was lively and hundreds of people arrived at the harbour every minute. By the time Sinterklaas actually arrived I think there were about six to eight thousand spectators there.

 

a) The Ship Museum, b) The Pieten entertaining the crowd, c) Crowds of people on bridges and boats

 

At 12:00 hrs on the dot the sirens went off, the bridges were raised and Sinterklaas’ vessel rolled into the harbour amid much cheers and excitement. I myself was rather thrilled to be there. I adore festivals such as this especially when it involves lots of costumes. The city officials stood on a platform ready to welcome Sinterklaas to Amsterdam. There were 2 boats : One was the main steamboat carrying Sinterklaas and a bunch of Zwarte Pieten, the second boat was just Pieten. Its so funny that these people were all dressed in old Spanish livery, all brightly coloured and looked like Gollywogs.

Sinterklaas arrives in the harbour of Amsterdam from "Spain"

 

Sinterklaas on board his steamboat

 

The city officials prepare to welcome Sinterklaas to the city.

 

After we witnessed Sinterklaas disembark his ship we didn’t stay to listen to the welcome speeches. We strolled to Chinatown and had a hearty lunch of ‘har kow’ and fried beef  noodles. Knowing that the parade would take the main road down past R’s office in Spui we cycled there ahead of Sinterklaas and his entourage, and killed time having coffee and browsing the discount bookstore where I picked up two French cookbooks ~ but more on those in a separate post. At 2:00 p.m we made our way to the main road to await the parade.

We parked ourselves next to the clock tower at the Flower Market. Sinterklaas was late and it was only about an hour later did he turn up. Black Petes preceeded the old guy, and they came zooming down the street on roller blades, high fiving us spectators and getting us all geared up. Some were dancing, others were handing out kruidnoten. It was all very entertaining. What I liked the most were the horses actually … and the ones chosen for the parade were very handsome indeed. R didn’t think so ~ he’s not a fan of horses; says they’re all out to bite him.

 

 

At the end of the parade was Mr Claus himself, and true to tradition, he was indeed mounted on a white horse. I was just glad he finally showed up coz my feet were beginning to ache and it was a very cold day …. my fingers were rather frozen, refusing to let go of my camera. R was being a darling and he stood patiently next to me until I was satisfied with my day. Oh, but he did lose my flag tho; I was rather miffed about that.

 

 

 

We didn’t follow Sinterklaas all the way to Leidseplein. Apparently when he gets there he addresses the crowd and then the ceremony is over. We, however, made our way into a toy store and left with a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle set (I wanted a 2,000 piece set but R insisted 5,000 was the way to go). When we got home it soon became apparent it was so big that it wasn’t going to fit on our dining room table. Great! Anyway, I digress. Sinterklaas will now stay in the city for a few weeks (allagedly) going through the ‘Naughty’ and ‘Nice’ list. On the 5th of Dec he begins his official gift-giving round. Yes, you heard me, I said on the 5th of December kids get their Christmas presents. The Dutch call this day ‘Sinterklaasavond‘ meaning Santa Claus evening or ‘Pakjesavond‘ (present evening).

On the evening of the 5th kids leave their shoes by the fire (the radiator?) before going to sleep. Some times they also leave a carrot in their shoes for Sinterklaas’ horse. The next day they wake up, and if they have been good children all year, they will find that they have candy in their shoes and a sack of presents left behind. If I was a kid, I’d make sure I place the BIGGEST clog by the fire. But that’s just me …. I’m greedy like that. After this day Sint and Piet will leave the city and the festivities are over. Hmmm … I don’t know how I feel about this ending, but its always nice to see and experience a different version of Christmas.

 

Anyway, that’s it from me today and I leave you with this recipe for traditional kruidnoten.

http://dutchfood.about.com/od/breadspastriescookies/r/Kruidnoten.htm

 

 

 

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