Posted in Study Abroad

Happy Sinterklaasavond!

When I was in elementary school, I hazily recall coming home from school one day just after Thanksgiving and telling my parents about a holiday tradition we had learned. The only word/sound that comes to mind when I try to think of what the holiday was called is Mecowash, which sounds like gobbledygook to me (and to Goggle because nothing comes up remotely related).

Regardless of the name, what the tradition entailed was putting my shoes out by our front door one night in early December, and if I had been good, I would find in the morning that a little elf had left me some chocolate coins and other sweets. If I had been bad, I’d get coal. We only participated in this holiday twice at the most.

Fast forward an undisclosed number of years, I’m studying abroad in the Netherlands, and December has just begun. I notice that the city is getting its tinsel on for what I assume is Christmas when I begin hearing stories of a huge holiday coming up – and soon. These stories were about children who put their shoes out and the next morning find them filled with gifts and sweets.

Something about this seems familiar to me. It takes a bit for my little gray cells to start working and then the memory makes its way to the surface. Mecowash! Here the holiday is called Sinterklaasavond (Saint Nicholas Eve).

Sinterklaas arriving in Rotterdam, Netherlands

And there’s a good chance you’ve actually heard of Sinterklaas too –  if you’ve watched  Miracle on 34th Street. In the scene where the woman brings the adopted little Dutch girl to see Santa Claus and he begins to speak to the little girl in Dutch, they sing a song that goes:

Sinterklaas Kapoentje

gooi wat in mijn schoentje,

gooi wat in mijn laarsje,

dank u, Sinterklaasje!

(in English)

Sinterklaas Kapoentje,

throw something in my shoe,

throw something in my boot,

thank you Sinterklaasje!

Any wishes or gift requests the little Dutch girl may have made, however, would not arrive on December 24th but today, December 5th for in the Netherlands today is Sinterklaasavond.

Here are the Cliffnotes on Sinterklaas:                                                                               The story’s roots go back to the Middle Ages. The holiday evolved from a celebration of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, sailors, merchants, and Amsterdam (to name a few) with giving to the poor by putting money in their shoes to the modern day putting sweets and gifts in the shoes of children.

Sinterklaas arrives in towns all over the Netherlands in late November via steamboat (naturally, as patron saint of sailors) from Spain with Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), his Moorish servant known traditionally to be a figure of evil who is mischievous and looks out for the wicked. There is usually a parade as Sinterklaas disembarks the steamboat and gets in the saddle of his trusty steed, Amerigo.

Two Zwarte Pieten with their bags of treats and where they store the bad children

The night before December 5th, children place their shoes and clogs out in front of the fireplace having filled them with hay and carrots for Amerigo. Zwarte Piet’s job is to enter the houses, usually through the chimneys, take the hay and carrots, and in their place leave gifts and sweets, such as large chocolate letters and pepernoten (“pepper nuts,” a chewy large crouton-looking treat made from flour, sugar, anise, cinnamon, and clove). But, more importantly, he is to collect all the bad children, put them in his big sack and take them with him to Spain.

Sinterklaasavond is the season’s main day of families gathering, present-exchanging, and feasting in the Netherlands.  It hasn’t been until more recent years that merchants have begun pushing Santa Claus and Christmas as another gift-giving holiday, but for most Sinterklaas is it.

I celebrated the holiday by buying a couple large chocolate L’s and I tried pepernoten. It was cool to learn about a holiday I was completely unaware of – at least I thought I was completely unaware of it. I also started thinking that perhaps all those years ago while I was hearing Me-co-wash, my teacher was actually saying something with Ni-co-las.

Original image and ownership information for the clogs can be found at http://behindtheoperamask.blogspot.com/.

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