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.
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.
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.
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.