Sinterklaas (also called Sint Nicolaas or De Goedheiligman in Dutch and Saint Nicolas in French) is a traditional Winter holiday figure in the Netherlands, Belgium, Aruba, Suriname and Netherlands Antilles, celebrated every year on Saint Nicholas' eve (5 December) or, in Belgium, on the morning of 6 December. The feast celebrates the name day of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of, among other things, children. He is the basis for the American figure of Santa Claus.
It is also celebrated in the traditionally Germanic parts of France (North, Alsace, Lorraine), as well as in Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and in the town of Trieste and in Eastern Friuli in Italy. Additionally, many Roman Catholics of Alsatian and Lotharingian descent in Cincinnati, Ohio, celebrate "Saint Nicholas Day" on the morning of 6 December. The traditions differ from country to country, even between Belgium and the Netherlands.
The Sinterklaas feast celebrates the name day, 6 December, of Saint Nicholas (280–342), patron saint of children and sailors. Saint Nicholas was a bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey. In the eleventh century, his relics were moved to Italy making it a Church holiday. This was paving the way for the folk feast. At first, there was a childbishop. A child who was dressed up as a bishop on Saint Nicolas' eve and perform the mass the following day. This folk tradition was a provocation of the Church. Also, instead of incense, shoes were burned producing a very strong stench. Certain rhymes contain swear words such as 'kapoentje' (castrated male chicken) or have a negative meaning. These rhymes were often made up by elder children who in the beginning of the tradition did not receive presents unlike the younger children. In the modern tradition, the pejorative meanings in the songs are lost.
In earlier times, the feast was both an occasion to help the poor by putting some money in their shoes (which evolved into putting presents in children's shoes) and a wild feast, similar to Carnival, that often led to mass public drunkenness. After the Netherlands became a largely Protestant country, many Calvinists argued that the feast of Sinterklaas was too 'paaps' (a slang term for Catholic) and should be abolished. However, the feast was so popular, even among the Protestant population, that these efforts were largely unsuccessful.
The modern tradition of Sinterklaas as a children's feast probably originates from the illustrated children's book Sint Nicolaas en zijn knecht (Saint Nicholas and his helper) written in 1850 by teacher Jan Schenkman (1806–1863). This book introduced the concept of Sinterklaas delivering presents through the chimney, riding the roofs of houses on a white horse, and arriving from Spain by steamboat. It also introduced the song "Zie ginds komt de stoomboot" ("See, there comes the steamboat") which remains one of the most well known Sinterklaas songs in the Netherlands.
In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas' Eve (5 December) is the chief occasion for gift-giving. The evening is called "sinterklaasavond" or "pakjesavond" ("presents evening"). In the Netherlands, children receive their presents on this evening whereas in Belgium children put their shoe in front of the fireplace on the evening of 5 December, then go to bed, and find the presents around the shoes on the morning of the 6th.
Sinterklaas during World War II
In the lean times of the German occupation of the Netherlands (1940–1945), Sinterklaas nonetheless came to cheer everyone, not just children. Many of the traditional Sinterklaas rhymes written during those times contain references to current events, and many celebrate the Royal Air Force. In 1941, for instance, the RAF dropped little boxes of candy over the occupied Netherlands. One of the accompanying rhymes:
- R.A.F. Kapoentje,
- Gooi wat in mijn schoentje,
- Bij de Moffen gooien,
- Maar in Holland strooien!
The rhyme is a variation on one of the best-known traditional Sinterklaas rhymes, with "R.A.F." replacing "Sinterklaas" in the first line (fortuitously, the two expressions have the same metrical characteristics), and in the third and fourth urging Sinterklaas to drop bombs on the "Moffen" (slur for "Germans", like "krauts" in English) and candy over the Netherlands. Many of the rhymes bewail the lack of food and basic necessities, and the fact that the German occupiers had taken everything of value; others express admiration for the Dutch resistance.
- ↑ Some of these have been collected, and are to be published in 2009 by Hinke Piersma, a researcher at the Dutch Institute for War Documentation.
- ↑ Budde, Sjoukje (4 December 2008), "Hitler heeft den strijd gestart, maar aan ’t eind krijgt hij de gard", de Volkskrant (Amsterdam), http://www.volkskrant.nl/binnenland/article1103863.ece/Hitler_heeft_den_strijd_gestart%2C_maar_aan_t_eind_krijgt_hij_de_gard, retrieved 5 December 2008 .
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