Saint Nicholas - an ancestor of Santa Claus ?

Every year around mid-November, Saint Nicholas, or as we say here Sinterklaas, makes his arrival in most towns of Holland and Belgium.
That's always a big happening, also in the small town of Weesp.

arrival of Sinterklaas
Sinterklaas is in view !

During the nights till December 6 (his birthday), the saint will ride over the rooftops on his horse. Assisted by a legion of "Pieten" - Petes.
They'll drop presents through the chimney for the children. That is, if they have been good. And if they sang a couple of songs in his honor at the fireplace, before going to bed. Also, a shoe must be prepared with a carrot for the horse.
The climax is the evening of December 5. "Pakjesavond", presents evening. Then it's not for the children only. In the family, everybody gets a specially prepared present. With poems, mostly of a satirical nature. Making fun of the receiver. This (main) present is packed in a so called "surprise" :a homemade object that contains the present. Can be huge, can give you an idea of what's inside, or just the opposite. Generally hard to unpack, a "surprise" can take weeks to make.

One of the curious things about this extremely popular festive day is that Saint Nicholas is of course a catholic bishop. As Holland is formally protestant, and fought a bitter 80-years war of independence (1568-1648) against catholic Spain, you can imagine that the authorities were absolutely not charmed by this yearly happening. So, certainly in the 17th and 18th century, they went through a great deal of trouble to get rid of this tradition. Without success, obviously.

Until mid 19th century Sinterklaas had no assistants. Then the figure of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) was introduced in popular literature. In the beginning a somewhat scaring character, with a rod and a big bag to abduct naughty children.
Over time Piet develop into a much more friendly character, becoming witty and funny. In fact, for most children, he became more popular than old boring Saint Nicholas himself. So children (and adults) loved to dress up as Black Pete, making themselves unrecognizable and gladly using the opportunity to pull people's leg.
You must realize that till the 1970ies there were virtually no black people in the Netherlands. People saw no harm in dressing up and blackening their face. It certainly had no racist meaning or intention. Different nowadays of course.
So, in this changing world Black Pete is rapidly changing color as well. The Petes come in all colors nowadays.

The painting below by Jan Steen (made 1665-68) shows that basically not much has changed in the way we celebrate Sinterklaas. Well yes, it is of course very much commercially exploited today. But in our family, we keep it simple.
On the painting you see "speculaas", typical Sinterklaas-cake, sort of gingerbread. Mid November is the time for me to start baking them again. Fortunately to the delight of the family! A recipe of this traditional treat on Coquinaria.

Sinterklaas brought presents ... for some

In this "St Nicholas Feast", Jan Steen supposedly portrayed family members. The little girl, who is clearly happy with her present and a bucket full of goodies, could then be his daughter Catharina. The weeping boy, who found the whip in his shoe, his son Thadeus.
For enlargements, details and backgrounds, follow this link to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where the painting is on display.
More general information, see St Nicholas on WikiPedia.
Return to history, general backgrounds on this website.

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