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<DIV CLASS="title">Sinterklaas is Coming to Town</DIV>
<P CLASS="copyrt">&copy; Sarah Maddox, 1997-2003</P>

<DIV class="sub2">This article first appeared in <SPAN CLASS="emph2">THE LADY</SPAN> magazine, 16-29 December 1997.</DIV>


<DIV CLASS="para">In Holland, Santa Claus comes twice a year. It's a child's dream come true. Or is it?</DIV>
<DIV CLASS="para">Picture a bleak mid-November day in Houten, Holland. Bare trees poke into the low, grey sky. Puffs of breath hang in front of my face. The dim light reduces the rows of houses to monochrome look-alikes.</DIV>
<DIV CLASS="para">But that's something I notice only afterwards, when I watch my video-recording. At the time, my impression was of colour, movement, merriment and noise. Sinterklaas was coming to town.</DIV>
<DIV CLASS="para">Strains of music reached our ears. The crowd around me stilled momentarily, then spun to even louder enthusiasm as the children's shrill voices joined in with the well-loved tune. Bicycles wheeled round and round. Little boys clutched pieces of paper to their handle-bars - their letters to Sinterklaas. As the music came closer, the children found it harder and harder to stay still. Balls whizzed through the air. The cyclists' circles grew smaller and smaller. At last, the procession appeared. First came a police car, to clear the way. Then the well-disciplined band, marching in strict time. We held our breath, strained our necks, peeled our eyes for the first glimpse.</DIV>

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<DIV CLASS="para">A flash of colour. A twinkling eye, a raucous laugh. Zwarte Piet! The children surged forward, then retreated hastily as he approached. Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, is Sinterklaas's helper. Actually, Sint has a vast number of Zwarte Piets at his service. And a good proportion of them were in Houten that day. Eyes gleamed from grease-blackened faces. No Piet was ever still, dodging in and out of the crowd, throwing handfuls of ....what? It was difficult to see - we'd have to wait until they came closer. Their costume was that of the medieval Moors, though often freely interpreted: a magnificent ostrich-feather adorning a flat beret; large rings in the ears; puffed sleeves on a brightly-coloured tunic; a wide white ruff around the neck;  a doublet and cape; knee-length breeches; dark stockings; and white running-shoes. Over each shoulder hung a bulging sack.</DIV>
<DIV CLASS="para">The children drew a collective breath, shrank back against us. One of the Zwarte Piets zoomed in, pushing a colleague in a wheelbarrow. A dark smile, well meant. A closed hand, extended towards my two sons. They stared back, frozen with fear. Other children gazed on with a mixture of envy and sympathy. At last, Daddy took a few of the proffered goodies and put them into each son's hand. They were tiny, spicy gingernuts. A squeal of a wheel, and Piet was gone.</DIV>

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<DIV CLASS="para">We raised our eyes again, and there was the great man himself. Sinterklaas stood in an open-backed truck. White hair and beard frothed out under a bishop's mitre of red and gold. White-gloved hands waved regally. In contrast to his helpers, Sint was dignified, and unequivocally benevolent. Under a red cape, he wore a snowy-white shirt with wide, lace-edged sleeves. A bishop's staff rested beside him. But lo! Hitching a ride behind him were two of the rascally Piets, grinning and nodding over those sacks of theirs.</DIV>
<DIV CLASS="para">The sacks encapsulate the duality of Sinterklaas himself. For good children, the sacks contain sweets, treats and presents. But bad children may receive a bunch of sticks, tied together to form a rod. Or, the worst punishment of all, a wicked child may be bundled into the sack and taken back to Spain with Sinterklaas.</DIV>
<DIV CLASS="para">For the Dutch Sinterklaas comes not from the frozen wastes of the North, but from Spain. No-one knows quite why. The original Saint Nicholas lived in the fourth century AD, in what is now Turkey. At the end of the eleventh century, his remains were transferred to Bari, Italy, where they lie enshrined. Some people suggest that the Dutch thought Bari was in Spain. Others say that the veneration of the saint was passed on from Spanish sailors to Dutch sailors.</DIV>
<DIV CLASS="para">Hence Zwarte Piet, who represents a Moor. Every year, people ask whether Piet is a racist conception. Some parents tell their children that he is black because he has come down the chimney so often...</DIV>
<DIV CLASS="para">However it may be, the tradition holds fast. In mid-November each year, Sinterklaas arrives at a coastal town by steamboat from Spain. National television records the event. The mayor of the chosen town greets Sinterklaas, and escorts him to the town centre, with all due pomp and ceremony. The town welcomes him with special Sinterklaas songs, children and adults alike swaying to the simple, rousing tunes. Sint, as he is affectionately known, gives a short speech in his deep voice. He congratulates all and sundry on the turnout, and on the number of good children around. The irrepressible Zwarte Piets roam the fringes, rousing the crowd to disrespectful titters.</DIV>
<DIV CLASS="para">Now that Sint is in the country, he has a busy time. He visits each and every town by day. By night, he roams the rooftops on his white horse.  Until he leaves again on the morning of 6th December, the children are on tenterhooks. Sinterklaas haunts the shopping-centres. Zwarte Piet lurks around every corner. Each child has to sit on Sint's lap and sing a carefully-rehearsed song, to earn his presents. In the evening, each child puts his shoe carefully near the chimney. Sinterklaas may drop a treat into it: gingernuts, chocolate letters, marzipan animals. If the child has been good all year, that is. "But", a member of the National Sint Nicolaas Committee assured me, "we have no bad children in Holland."</DIV>
<DIV CLASS="para">At last, it is the eve of Saint Nicholas's feast-day. Most parents contrive to work only a half-day on the 5th of December. They rush home, to wait indoors with their excited children. At last it comes: a knock on the door. If the children are quick enough, they may just see Zwarte Piet disappearing around the corner. But always, there is a sack of presents on the doorstep.</DIV>
<DIV CLASS="para">The idea of giving gifts anonymously comes from an episode in Saint Nicholas's life. The legend tells that a father had three daughters. He was too poor to give them the dowry required for marriage, so he was forced to consider putting them out on the streets as prostitutes. The youthful Nicholas heard of this and determined to save the girls from their plight. He made up three bags of gold and threw them through the poor family's window.</DIV>
<DIV CLASS="para">Traditionally in Holland, present-giving is confined to the fifth of December. Many people feel that presents are inappropriate at Christmas time, which is more of a religious festival, and a quiet family time. </DIV>
<DIV CLASS="para">But in Holland as everywhere, Father Christmas has made inroads into traditional ways. For a while, Sinterklaas lost ground to his international competitor. In 1993, the National Sint Nicolaas Committee was formed, to lobby shop-owners to decorate their shops for Sinterklaas as well as for Christmas. Surveys were done, and the majority of parents expressed a desire to preserve Sinterklaas. Many celebrate both festivals with presents.</DIV>
<DIV CLASS="para">Father Christmas owes his existence to Sinterklaas. When the Dutch settled in America, they brought Sinterklaas with them. British settlers adapted the tradition, creating Santa Claus to give presents to children at Christmas. The two figures look very similar: white hair and beard, red robes. Sinterklaas's outfit retains a more clerical style.</DIV>
<DIV CLASS="para">The Sinterklaas festival is a family affair in true Dutch fashion. Everyone is involved. At around eight years old, children are told the truth. (Most of them have strong inklings of the truth by then anyway.) Now they join in the adult celebrations. Teenagers make keen and eager Piets. Adults exchange gifts too. Budding poets compose nasty rhymes to accompany their gifts. Wrapping the presents is an art. The aim is to disguise the gift with the most exotic packaging your imagination can concoct.</DIV>
<DIV CLASS="para">Early on the morning of 6th December, Sinterklaas and his helpers return to Spain, to prepare the presents for next year's festival.</DIV>
 <DIV CLASS="para">Have you been feeling that Christmas comes earlier each year? If you find yourself in Holland in November or early December, pip Santa to the post by welcoming Sinterklaas instead. Contact the local tourist information centre, the VVV, in any Dutch town to find when their own particular Sint is docking. For more general information, contact the National Sint Nicolaas Committee (tel. +31 40 242-4245).</DIV>

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<DIV CLASS="copyrt">&copy; Sarah Maddox, 1997-2003. Drawings by Peter Maddox.</DIV>

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