You’d better watch out… Sinterklaas comes to town.

I had been warned about this.  Before I had even arrived in the Netherlands, people I met warned me, just as a friendly heads up, that around Christmas time the Dutch all became a bit… well… ‘funny.’   “It’s a bit like all the normal Christmas traditions you see elsewhere in Europe, only like you dropped some acid and things just aren’t quite right any more.”  I found myself imaging the Big Lebowski scene where The Dude gets knocked out (marvellous scene by the way), but that doesn’t really explain it in any way shape or form.

Let’s get the key name out there: Sinterklaas.   The Dutch Father Christmas.  Now I know Santa is a pretty bizarre figure anyway, but the Dutch manage to max it out with some neat changes.   Firstly, Sinterklaas is a real live Saint;  The former bishop of Turkey as it happens.  Obvious in retirement from that job, he went where old people go to retire – Spain.  Well, I hear you can buy English Breakfast all along the Costa del Sol these days, who could turn that down.

A Catholic (despite Protestant being the dominant Christian tradition in the Netherlands), Sinterklaas is kitted out in a red robe, a pope-like hat and staff, and a large white horse.  There is still a part of me which is honestly disappointed he doesn’t get around by bike.  I really feel the Dutch are missing a trick here.  It’s so obvious, I don’t know why he hasn’t made the transition.  Anyway, a horse.

The man himself

Kids want to be like him

Sinterklaas visits Dutch children on the night of the 5th December, so naturally he arrives a few week earlier to scope the place out.  He comes by boat, from Spain, and is met by throngs of cheering Cloggies (which is a colloquialism I’m going to start using for the Dutch, because I like it and I can.  I saw it on Urban Dictionary once if you must know), at ports all along the coastline.  He spends the time up until the 5th visiting Dutch town, and Leiden was no exception.

The boats were out in force – Sometimes the best way to get a good view is drive your boat into the action

Sinty came into Leiden by canal, disembarked onto his horse, and was flanked by his helpers.  Elves? I hear you ask, in your minds.  NO you fools!  Zwart Piet.  Black Peter.  A Dutch icon, Black Pete is everywhere at this time of year, in shop windows, on cakes, billboards, in sweets, you name it, he’s there.  You can see the pictures, you know what this is.  Black Pete is represented by the Dutch by blacking up.  Black-face.  They paint their faces black.  And dress up in bright coloured clothing, and hand out sweets to kids.  Okay the sweet thing isn’t that mental for a Christmas tradition, but the rest. Yeah.   It’s everywhere.  The cake shop near my house has what can only be described as a very large Gollywog in the window.  I bike past it daily, and it still freaks me out.

Zwart Pieten line up for the disembarkation of Sinterklaas

A lonely looking Pete

Growing up in Britain you don’t really see this sort of thing. I saw a guy blacked-up at a College party once, and there was almost a fight over it.  To me, it seems pretty racist.   Here though, it isn’t.  After some soul searching, I’ve calmed down a little about it and I now think of it as a very bizarre Dutch novelty, which isn’t malicious at all.  From what I gather there was no Black and White Minstrel Show in the Netherlands that everyone is collectively embarrassed about, so blacking up doesn’t have the same stigma at all.  There is an annual collective ‘so guys… is this racist?’ debate, which normally involves foreigners being surprised and everyone else shrugging it off.   Lots of children I saw that day were themselves sporting the blacked-up look; they’ve all done it at some stage so its completely normalised for future generations.  For me though, it all seems a bit odd.   Explanations for the blackness vary.  The tradition replaces a pagan one based around a story involving two ravens who helped the Norse god Odin, so the blackness comes from the ravens.  I’ve heard they are slaves, or that Pete was a slave boy liberated by Sinterklaas who helps him out to show his gratitude.  I’ve even heard the black is soot from the chimney; a PC rendering absolutely everyone agrees is bollocks.

You can’t fault them for having fun with it though.  There was even a black Elvis riding around on a segway for the day; I defy you not to smile at the absurdity of that. The day continued with a rather anarchic parade through town, involving Sinterklaas and a small army of Zwart Pieten accompanying him with sweets (candy for you non-brits) for the crowd.  A marching band was pursued by some Pieten in a clog-car, and aside from a slightly hairy moment when the fabled white horse stumbled on a cobblestone, the whole thing was very fun.

Black Elvis on a Segway. It’s okay. I know. I know.

Obviously Sinterklaas can’t hold his cane when he is riding

Sure, it’s a racist caricature, but the kid was having a great time!

This guy just looks good 365 days a year

Well…huh… there you go folks.

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A Whole New World… You’re telling me.

Fairly recently I was on my way out of a meeting about the international student newspaper of Leiden, when someone said to me, “are you going to this thing at 7pm on Nieuwe Rijn?” Now, I live on that canal, and that anything was going on there was news to me.   This happens fairly regularly.  Leiden is a fairly small town, but is buzzing with a seemingly limitless number of events I normally know nothing about.  I didn’t have plans, so I thought I would go along.  If nothing else I live on the street so it’s not exactly far out of the way.   No one could tell me what was happening though; the closest I got was “all the kids of Leiden wonder around a lot.”   Mysterious.

It was a bit drizzly, but then it normally is here.

There was a lot of security tape on scene when I arrived, but almost no people.  Some friends and I parked up with a beer in a nearly café and waited for something to happen.  Sure enough, within 10 minutes .. well… a lot of children started wondering around.  It took a little asking around to establish that what we were waiting for was Leiden’s rather unique take on turning on the Christmas lights.   It’s not exactly like the UK tradition of a Z list celebrity pressing a plunger outside of the shopping centre.    Children of Leiden parade through the streets carrying lanterns, converging on the centre of town by the city hall.

Lanterns abandoned by unruly children

All the big names were in town

Once everyone was gathered on either side of the canal, the music started up… and what a playlist.   Disney songs, many translated into Dutch, swept forth.   You’ve really never heard Sebastian the Crab sing “Under the Sea” until you’re heard it in Dutch , Jamaican accent and all (Diep in de zee – although in this version he sounds a bit like Omid Djalili) .  I don’t think there was any deep meaning to this, just that any public occasion is enriched with a bit of “Oh I just can’t wait to be king,” from the Lion King.  The more musical amongst you might even want to try and sing along to A Whole New World.  And to think you said Dutch wasn’t a beautiful language.

Just as I had reverted to the state of an excited 7 year old, I noticed two longboats being rowed towards each other in the canal, lit by blue lights.   It’s best to just check the pictures here, because I honestly don’t really understand what happened or why.  Men dressed as clockwork figures stood at the front and lead the boats, finally touching with an explosion of red flares.  It was an impressive sight.  Everyone was happy and cheering as the flares burnt, and then about 30 seconds later everyone left.  Just like that.  Oh, and at some point in all this they turned the Christmas lights on.