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Better be good or you’ll be shipped off to Spain!

December 5, 2008

I believe it was mid-October when some interesting items started popping up in the stores around Belgium. Giant boxes of Speculaas (the wonderful gingerbread-like cookie that just loves being dipped in my coffee) were adorned with a funny white-haired guy in some sort of religious bishop-like hat, carrying a staff and riding a horse or a boat. Or both. Often, this saintly fellow was flanked by shorter, jester-like African guys dressed in bright colors.

Kinda like these:

(Zwarte Piet & Sinterklaas)

(Sinterklaas, Speculaas and the most traditional Sinterklaas item of all, a chocolate GSM (cell phone))

A quick check with my coworkers (and Wikipedia) revealed that the images adorning my beloved Speculoos as well as the decorations that were starting to fill the local patisseries and shop windows were not related to Christmas or Santa Claus but to Sinterklaas. And the not even remotely PC images of black jesters? Those are Sinterklaas’ helpers – “Zwarte Piets” or “Black Peters.”  If you are scratching your head, thinking ‘how is this possible? Where is the NAACP?’ well, here’s the background (copied from Wikipedia because I’m lazy AND I want to leave on time to go to the Christmas Market tonight!):

Arrival of Sinterklaas:

Sinterklaas traditionally arrives each year in November (usually on Saturday) by steamboat from Spain  (even though the bishop is originally from Turkey. It is believed that the gifts associated with the holy man such as oranges and clementines led to the misconception that he must have been from Spain. That story has stuck ever since), and is then paraded through the streets, welcomed by cheering and singing children[3]. Invariably, this event is broadcast live on national television in the Netherlands and Belgium. His Zwarte Piet assistants throw candy and small, round ginger bread-like cookies, kruidnoten or pepernoten, into the crowd. The children welcome him by singing traditional Sinterklaas songs. Sinterklaas also visits schools, hospitals and shopping centres. After this arrival all towns with a dock have their own intocht van Sinterklaas (arrival of Sinterklaas). Local arrivals usually takes place on Sunday, the day after he arrives in the Netherlands or Belgium. In places a boat cannot reach, Sinterklaas arrives by train, bus, horse or even carriage.

(arriving by boat)

(on horse)

As for those Zwarte Pieten:

‘Zwarte Piet’, Sinterklaas’ helping hand Black Pete has a story found in the bishops past. Three small Moorish boys were to be sentenced to death for a crime they did not commit. Because the bishop intervened they were saved. The boys stayed with Sinterklaas to help him as show of gratitude. The Black Petes we know for Sinterklaas night are tumbling and jumping all over the roofs to deliver the presents. Their black skin color may refer either to the job of chimneysweep, which is corroborated by the clothes, that remind of an Italian chimneysweep’s costume and by the tradition of climbing roofs and bringing the packages through the chimney, or to the Moorish background of Sinterklaas’s helpers.

When you see Sinterklaas and his Black Petes they will also carry the bag (that either holds candy for nice children or the ‘roe’, a bunch of willow branches used to spank naughty children in the old days-a chimneysweep’s broom). They toss the candy around for all. This stems from Sint Nicolaas’ story of saving three young girls from prostitution by tossing golden coins through their window at night till the debt their father had made were paid.

Zwarte Pieten

(If you’d like to spice up your St. Nick’s party, you can hire these Zwarte Pieten here.)

De Zwarte Pieten op huisbezoek bij Lieke en Patrick

(They’ll even come to your home…)

 

The Bit about the Shoe:

Traditionally, in the weeks between his arrival and the 5th of December, before going to bed, children put their shoes next to the chimney of the coal fired stove or fireplace, with a carrot or some hay in it “for Sinterklaas’s horse”, sing a Sinterklaas song, and will find some candy or a small present in their shoes the next day, supposedly thrown down the chimney by a ‘Zwarte Piet’ (Black Pete) or Sinterklaas himself. However, with the advent of central heating children put their shoes near the boiler or even just next to the front door.

Typical Sinterklaas candy is the chocolate letter, the first letter of the child’s name made out of chocolate, kruidnoten(a type of shortcrust biscuit), chocolate coins, a figurine of Sinterklaas made out of chocolate and wrapped in painted aluminium foil, and coloured marzipan shaped into fruit, an animal or some other object.

Children are told that Black Pete enters the house through the chimney, which also explains his black face and hands, and would leave a bundle of sticks (roe) or a small bag with salt in the shoe instead of candy when the child had been bad.

Children are also told that in the worst case they would be put in the gunny sack in which Black Pete carries the presents, and be taken back to Spain, where Sinterklaas is said to spend the rest of the year.

SOOooo. TO recap: St. Nick arrives on a boat from Spain in November. Rides a horse around town with his trusy Zwarte Piets (Don’t you think it seems less offensive when its in Dutch? Or is it not offensive at all? I don’t know.). Puts candy  in your shoes if you are good, salt if you are bad. If you are REALLY naughty, you get stuck in his bag and taken back to Spain. (Which is somehow frightening. Not sure how though considering the weather in Spain is infinitely better than in Belgium & The Netherlands. I think I’d be extra bad for the free vacation in the sun.)

Oh, and just so you know… Belgium kids ALSO celebrate Christmas. Which means they get TWO holidays to celebrate. When I grow up I want to be a gradeschooler in Belgium.

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40 Comments leave one →
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