Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The real St. Nick's day

Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Piets arrive by boat
(photo from
        I'm putting my shoes -- my wooden shoes? -- near the chimney tonight. Been doing it for 60-something years on the evening of Dec. 5.
        St. Nicholas -- and Zwarte Piet (translated: black Pete) -- are making the rounds tonight.
        The real St. Nicholas. Not Santa Claus. Not Nick Saban. Not a fat, jolly guy with elves nor a driven, single-minded, often obnoxious football coach.
        No, a tall, thin white-bearded man wearing a red miter, carrying a curled staff, riding a white horse, accompanied by "six to eight" black men. (Not really black, just painted that way. And not just six to eight; that was a myth. It could be just one, or it could be a boatful.)
        Word is that our St. Nicholas originally was the bishop of Turkey but now lives in Madrid, Spain, and comes to Holland by steamship every year in mid-November, arrives at the harbor in Amsterdam, and then is featured in a parade going into downtown.
         I have seen it happen, honestly.
         From the time I was old enough to figure out what was going on until we left Holland when I was 8, my parents took me (and my baby sister) to the parade. I can remember how beautiful it looked all lit up in holiday lights as we rode the tram toward downtown. 
          And then, amid the bands and floats and marching units, we saw the man on the white horse, with his helpers. I've seen them up close.
          What I'm realizing now, doing research for this piece, is that maybe -- maybe -- he also arrived by boat in the harbor in Rotterdam, and The Hague (Den Haag), and Eindhoven ... wherever he was needed in Holland.
            So, from mid-November until tonight, Sinterklaas -- it sounds like Santa Claus, doesn't it? -- makes public appearances. But there's work to be done tonight.
           Tonight is the night St. Nicholas -- accompanied by just one Zwarte Piet -- delivers the gifts to all the houses. The tradition is to place your shoes by the chimney or the door, with hay and/or sugar or a carrot for Sinterklaas' horse.
          In the morning, if you've been good, the shoes will be filled with chocolate -- often small bags of chocolate coins wrapped in gold paper. If you've been bad, you'll find a lump of coal.
           We did have coal at our little house in Amsterdam, but I don't remember it showing up in my shoes. Chocolate, yes. And there were gifts on the morning of Dec. 6.
            Now here's a twist that is part of humorist David Sedaris' essay/performance entitled "Six to Eight Black Men." Joe Garza, when he was sports editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram a couple of years ago, found it and printed it out for me, circled this part -- and reminded me of it often.
            As told to Sedaris by a Dutchman, the legend is that if St. Nicholas disapproved of a child's behavior, he would kick the child -- or at least pretend to kick him or her.
            So would Zwarte Piet. If the child was really bad, St. Nicholas would beat the child with a switch, then put the child in his bag and take it back to Spain.
            Garza says that's what happened to me. Ha!
            Not true. I always got chocolate, and I made it to America. So did my sister. So there.
            Another story, and please don't take this the wrong way: There were, in the early to mid-1950s, few black people in Amsterdam. I was a kid; I honestly don't remember seeing many, or any black people. Except for Sinterklaas' Zwarte Piet helpers. I know, it sounds awful.
            So we get to the U.S., we get to Shreveport, and there are a lot of black people. And I'm thinking ... lots of Zwarte Piets here.
            Told you, it's an awful thought.
            Christmas really wasn't celebrated that much in Holland; St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6) was the big day. So it was much different when we came to the U.S. and December was all about Christmas and this jolly character named Santa Claus and his elves and the North Pole.
            But I never forgot the St. Nicholas traditions. I even remember a couple of lines from my Sinterklaas songs. My wife has asked -- told me -- to refrain since I don't sing well ... at all.
            And I still put my shoes by the chimney on the night of Dec. 5. Oops, no chimney here. The patio will have to do. I'm sure St. Nicholas and Zwarte Piet can find it tonight. Chocolate, please.
     David Sedaris' essay entitled "Six to Eight Black Men" from the album Live at Carnegie Hall. It was originally published in Esquire Magazine:


  1. From Leo Van Thyn (also from Amsterdam): I remember it well. Sinterklaas, like Christmas to many folks here, has more to do with nationality than religion. Even though my parents maintained a Jewish home, we still put our shoes by the fireplace. It was just a lot of fun. Today we somewhat continue that tradition by giving chocolate letters to our children and grandchildren.

  2. Yes, chocolate letters, most important. We always got a chocolate letter which was the initial of your first name. For years, they were sent to us from Holland by our Tante Eef, later from Oma and now in my family by my daughter. According to Frank Thaxton, if our mothers didn't like someone in the family, they did not receive a letter symbolizing their name, but a totally unrelated letter.

  3. Joke Sterringa (ex sister-in-law of Kitty van de Kar)December 6, 2012 at 1:57 AM

    I am still living in Amsterdam, same age as the author, and remember it exactly as he does. Life in the 50ies was barer, and this feast was like an enormous splash of colour and luxury and warmth.
    It is still celebrated, of course, also by the Dutch newcomers from Marocco, Turkey, etc.

  4. From Elsa Van Thyn: Great blog, I remember the last parade we attended in Amsterdam in 1955. For a 4-year-old, it was a major highlight of my life.

  5. From Pete van den Boom: I can remember my Dad telling us these stories. Thank you. Great job.