The painting above, The Feast of St. Nicholas by Jan Havickszoon Steen (1626-1679), hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It depicts the morning of Sinterklaas in a Dutch household. The golden girl, complete with her golden dress, was obviously very good. She got a beautiful doll and a bucket full of goodies. Her older brother was the naughty one. He must have gotten a piece of coal. You can tell this is a Jan Steen painting right away because there is often a happy chaotic feeling to them. There are little round pepernoten strewn on the floor next to the bread basket and I see a huge beautiful, delicious-looking banket, which is almond paste covered in puff pastry, also on the floor(!). There is even a Dutch expression; a “Jan Steen household” is one where the housekeeping is a bit more…shall we say, lax.
What I remember of Sinterklaas in Holland most fondly is that this is the day when we exchanged presents. Yes, it’s very commercial, just like our Christmas, but it left Christmas as a sacred holiday. The Christmas I remember in Holland is similar to our Thanksgiving. It emphasizes sharing a beautiful meal with family and friends and of course, it also celebrates the birth of Jesus.
This time of year street organs ("draaiorgels") all over the Netherlands are playing Sinterklaas songs. Click here to hear a sample.
I adore Sinterklaas songs; there are dozens of famous classic ones. I used to sing them to my kids when they were babies, even when it wasn’t Sinterklaas.
I mentioned Sinterklaas’ helpers earlier. These helpers are palace pages from Morocco, just across the Mediterranean from Sinterklaas’ palace in Spain. They are usually white people wearing blackface and colorful pageboy costumes. When the political climate questioned why white people are masquerading as black, the immediate answer was that Zwarte Piet is black because of the chimney’s soot. All I know is that Zwarte Piet scared the peep out of me; mostly I’m sure because of the unnatural-looking shiny blackface.
Does all of this sound a bit strange to you? Tangobaby gave me a David Sedaris CD several years ago which contained a hilarious gig about the Zwarte Pieten and the rest of the Sinterklaas traditions:
Draaiorgel photo by marielle at Flickr