The grandfather of Santa ClausThe year 2009 has been declared ‘Year of the Traditions’ in the Netherlands, and number one on the list of ‘Top 100’ Dutch traditions is the annual Sinterklaas or ‘Pakjesavond’ holiday on December 5.
Dutch Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) is like the grandfather of Santa Claus, as other nations call the white-bearded guy. Sinterklaas arrives in Holland by boat from Spain, and his arrival - some two weeks before December 5 – is broadcast live on Dutch TV. On ‘Pakjesavond’ (Present’s evening), Sinterklaas and his little Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) helpers, ride around the country giving presents to the kids who behaved throughout the year. The Zwarte Pieten, somewhat controversially, have black painted faces and big red Negroid lips. Some say Zwarte Pieten represent slaves serving a white master, while others say they’re just Italian chimney cleaners with dirty faces, although the swollen lips, curly hair and golden earrings are left unexplained. A couple years ago, Pieten of all colors were shown on TV arriving with Sinterklaas. A storm of protest followed, forcing the government to deny trying to politically correct the Zwarte Pieten, while instead retrospectively claiming that Sint’s boat had in fact sailed through a rainbow! Originally a children’s event, nowadays adults give each other ‘Pakjesavond’ presents as well. These presents are accompanied by a rhyming poem that gently pokes fun at the person receiving the poem and present. Students also have their own Sinterklaas traditions. Starting on the morning of December 5, students dressed as Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieten will roam through the TU faculties giving employees chocolate letters and shots of gin. By noon, Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten, rather drunk themselves, as they drink the shots too, will start bursting into lecture halls singing Sinterklaas songs. This year a new term has been introduced into the tradition – ‘Sinterklaas-stress’, because kids stress out about all the Sinterklaas sweets displayed in shops, and adults stress out about buying gifts, organising parties and writing poems. Last year, as a newbie, my Dutch friends helped me write my Sinterklaas poem. But this year I’m on my own. So now I am ‘Sinterklaas-stressed’, which must make me officially Dutch!
Michael Afanasyev, MSC from Israel