Sinterklaas—One Family's Experience
by Okke Postma
Okke Postma grew up in the Netherlands in the 1950s and 60s. He married an American exchange student who had lived with his family. He and Kathy came to the US in 1976, where he's served several Reformed churches in the Hudson Valley. The Postma family enthusiastically celebrates Sinterklaas every year. Here Okke shares his childhood memories in the Netherlands and tells how their family continues the tradition in the New World.
Three events established the fall season in the eastern part of the Netherlands where Okke Postma grew up.
First, the October school vacation week. Children were needed for harvesting potatoes, sugar beets and turnips and the village harvest celebration was a three-day affair.
Then followed St. Martin's Feast Day in early November, when children would go around knocking on doors for treats—or else threaten "tricks"—and collect fruit and sweets (very like Halloween in the United States).
Saint Nicholas Eve
Union Chocolate ad, 1960 update of Jan Steen's 17th C classic
Click to see comparison
St Nicholas Center Collection
Yet the very best of all was Sinterklaas' celebration.
It was a most special time for all Dutch children. Although the actual Feast day was December 6, and the schools would usually be closed that day, the celebration began in earnest on the eve of December 5. The children would place their wooden shoes before the fireplace with hay and large winter carrots for St. Nicholas' white stallion. Special songs were enthusiastically sung in anticipation of wonderful surprises that were sure to follow. St. Nicholas, as a proven friend of all children, was the focus of praise.
Yet the songs also made clear the important work accomplished by good St. Nicholas' trusted servants, of whom the main one was Zwarte Piet, black Peter. His most able leadership and acumen in perfect distribution logistics, earned him high praise, as well. Piet and his underlings (Piets) could be counted on to lavishly throw around sweets and special pepper nuts (pepernootjes or pepernoten, small buttons of baked dough) that tasted just like the speculaas windmill spice cookies. However, you were allowed to eat a whole bunch of these tasty morsels instead of the one cookie that mother sparingly doled out at tea-time each winter day.
A visit with Sinterklaas was serious business. It was said he lived most of the year in Spain. As many of the season's songs say, Spain was the closest landfall before St. Nicholas reached the Netherlands by steamship. Proof of this was the orange every child would get—obligatory at this time, but otherwise quite rare in those days.
Nevertheless, in the two weeks between his official arrival in one of the large ports, Sinterklaas and his helpers would arrive at each town hall following an official parade. After that, he and his helpers were said to roam through the streets, peek in windows, and listen behind doors for tidbits of conversations, to check behavior, and maybe even consult with adults!
St. Nicholas himself would visit most schools on December 5, after which classes were dismissed for the rest of the day! (It would take Okke almost fourteen years to discover that his own father made the rounds as St. Nicholas in schools in the neighboring town, a role he filled for more than twenty-five years.)
On the evening of 5th December, came the—usually surprising—arrival of presents. They would appear, sometime, at the backdoor, front door, wherever, but never where children were sure they would magically appear. After supper, the family would gather to loudly sing some traditional songs, and soon the doorbell would ring, or a loud knock would be heard. The children ran to the door. When opened, no one could be seen, but a box, basket or some other container laden with presents miraculously would be sitting on the stoop.
With the family sitting in a big circle or around a large table, each present was sorted by name. Then the youngest could always begin. Then, one present was opened at a time; the order of ages was scrupulously followed. A rhyme of some sort accompanied each present.
Sometimes the rhyme would reach the status of a poem. Okke's father was particularly good at writing complicated poems, with acrostics, inner rhyme words, diagonal clues, and poetic forms from limericks to sonnets. His piéce de resistance would always be for his wife. (Later in life, we found out that he sometimes began writing his puzzle poems as early as June!)
Common to all efforts, sophisticated or not, was the unwritten rule that the writing was always personal, hinting at, or shamelessly recalling, some event during the year, or some deed or behavior of the recipient. Although poems were always written under the name of Sinterklaas (often Sint, for short) or Zwarte Piet, part of the fun was guessing who had written the poem.
Presents included special holiday food—always a chocolate alphabet letter matching the first letter of one's first name. A wish list, that had been painstakingly prepared during the fall, apparently helped Sinterklaas in his decision about what to give. Usually, just one of the presents was a "major" one. Most children tried to guess which it was, to save it until last.
Around the age of eight, the children were encouraged to become active participants. A small present for a sibling was not as important as was a two- or four-line poem, dictated to an adult, or scribbled out. The wrapping was the most fun, leading to inventive shapes and attempts to foil the recipient's guesses. I remember giving a present of a candlestick and candles to my sister (who was an avid knitter). It resembled two long knitting needles (the candles) tied to a large ball of wool (that contained the round candleholder).
At the end of the evening, a loud traditional song was sung to thank Sinterklaas and his helpers. Tired, full, and eager to greet the next day (with a holiday from school) to hook up with friends and play with new toys, sleep would come quickly.
As children, we always felt lucky we were Dutch, because we got the earliest feast day in all of Europe! The Scandinavians had to wait until St. Lucia in the middle of December, the Germans until Christmas; in the U.K Boxing Day was not until the day after Christmas, and the French waited for St. Sylvester at New Years Day. Eastern Europe was last, not until the end of the twelve days of Christmas, on the day of Epiphany, a full month later than St. Nicholas Day!
Dutch in the USA
Living in the USA for more than twenty-five years, Sinterklaas is still joyfully celebrated in the Postma family. Although we also observe American Christmas customs, St. Nicholas Day is faithfully adhered to! During the first years, the Dutch grandparents saw to it that the requisite edible goodies would arrive in time. After their deaths, Okke's sisters would send a large package for all the members of the emigrant family. When the boys went away to college, Sinterklaas made sure they were not forgotten. Now Okke and Kathy make sure chocolate letters, cookies and a small present arrive in time. (Buying the special foods and chocolate letters is made easier by a Dutch import store in nearby Connecticut. When all else fails, various stores around the country will gladly take orders via Internet.) Of course, a poem is enclosed with each gift! A recent favorite for Kathy was a poem accompanying a gift certificate for ballroom dancing classes with Okke. She had to sing it out loud to the tune of "Shall We Dance," from the musical The King and I. The oldest son has not missed one Sinterklaas celebration at home yet! He arranges his work schedule around it, and would come at St. Nicholas Eve rather than Thanksgiving—if, perchance, he had to choose. Occasionally, an expatriate is included in the festivities.
St. Nicholas is all about giving. Giving of one's best observations and ideas in poems, taking the time to buy or make presents, and, of course, wrap them elaborately. It is a wonderful bonding experience for families and friends. It truly is a feast where relationships are honored, sometimes tweaked, but always recognized.
What has been true of the legend of St. Nicholas is also true for this legacy: it endures and bears up well under the transformations into different languages and cultural settings.
As the closing song says: Dank je Sinterklaasje—Thank you, St Nick!
The Rev. Okke Postma is pastor of the First Reformed Church, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, where he lives with his wife, Kathy, who is a guidance counselor.
Rotating image: Bruna Campos, Musée d'art et d'histoire, Fribourg, Switzerland. Used by permission.or the United States