I originally put together my top ten lists because I thought I wouldn’t have much to blog about in November, as it was to be my designated detox, get fit and rest month. Well, I’ve definitely detoxed, so good on me there. Have I gotten fit? Well, it’s now winter and the other day I somehow broke my bike’s gears (and I’ll take any excuse). And rest? If you count four separate international sojourns and another coming up this month, I suppose I can then tick that box.
But I didn’t have to go far on my first weekend back in Dordrecht. The second Saturday in November isn’t some sort of Dutch take on the first Tuesday in November, but a special event does take place nonetheless. Sinterklaas arrives.
Sounds like Santa Claus, you’re thinking? Well, you’d be on the right train of thought there. Sinterklaas, or simply ‘de Sint’ (the Saint) is the original Father Christmas, though he has nothing to do with Christmas at all. The one you’re thinking of is the old dude who inspired Coca Cola’s 1920s marketing campaign, thus quickly spurring on this new Santa’s association with the North Pole, a reindeer-pulled flying sled and elves.
Sinterklaas doesn’t live in the North Pole. He lives in Spain.
Sinterklaas doesn’t have a reindeer-pulled flying sled. He arrives by steamboat before climbing aboard a white horse.
And, most importantly, Sinterklaas doesn’t have elves to help him out. He has Black Petes.
Yes, you saw correctly. Black Petes.
The Dutch, liberal that they are, have no problems with blackface and rigorously defend it as central to their culture. I, and other foreigners, just don’t get it. Thousands of Dutch every year voluntarily dress up in blackface, throwing out pepernoten (Sinterklaas cookies) to excited kids. Don’t even attempt to tell a Dutch person that in pretty much the rest of the world, blackface is seen as, well, putting it in the nicest way possible, maybe a teeny bit racist? Howls of protest will ensue.
Not wanting to be a party pooper, I did join in the Sinterklaas festivities. Every year he arrives in a different Dutch city, which is then televised live nation-wide, and this year they chose little old Dordrecht. Planning our route like I’d do for a Grand Final parade, we opted to welcome him at the harbour before taking a shortcut back home to see him arrive in the town square, Scheffersplein. Conveniently, we just so happen to live on Scheffersplein. So we did have the best seat in the house when he arrived, white horse and all. Even the local newspaper’s photographer joined us in the loungeroom window, with thousands of kids singing Sinterklaas songs such as “Welkom, welkom, welkom Sinterklaas”, of which I only know the one line.
Sinterklaas may have been in town for a couple of weeks, dropping off small gifts every so often (kids leave their shoes out by the fireplace each night), but tonight’s the big night. It’s the eve of St Nicholas’ feast day, so millions of Dutch and Belgian children will be receiving gifts tonight. (Kids usually receive their gifts at Sinterklaas time, and adults at Christmas.)
And Sinterklaas? He disappears without a trace, back to Spain apparently. Who could blame him, everyone thinks. At least there the weather is nice.