Six to Eight Black Men

*How* many of there are you again?

These are the helpers for the Dutch Sinterklaas. Interestingly, this is where we get our American Santa Claus, and if you find similarities between the two, this is no coincidence. I personally have found that the U.S. is very heavily influenced by the Dutch. One only has to travel to New York (formerly New Amsterdam) to really see this in action.

But back to Sinterklaas. Like Santa, Sint wears a red suit, has helpers, sports a white beard, and makes up a naughty/nice list each year, delivering toys to the nice – usually in their footwear – and teaching the naughty a lesson. But that’s really where the similarities end. Unlike the fat man’s fir-trimmed frock, Sint adorns his thin body with red robes very much resembling the Pope’s and tops his head with a red mitre. This is, of course, due to the fact that Sint spent his pre-Sinterklaas years as the bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey. Sint Nicolaas, as he was formerly known, was the patron saint of children.

Sinterklaas is celebrated in the Netherlands on the 5th of December – the eve of the Saint’s naming. This day was kept as a feast day to commemorate the Saint and his kind deeds towards children. In Belgium, however, children celebrate this holiday on the 6th of December. Mostly a holiday for children, Sinterklaas marks the day when they set their shoes before the chimney or radiator, perhaps with a carrot or hay inside for Sint’s horse, and await the delivery of presents.

And then, there are the six to eight black men. Individually, they are known as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Get them together and they become Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes). Back in the day, these fellows were in charge of whipping naughty children with switches before hoisting them into a canvas sack and carting them off to Spain (which is where Sinterklaas currently resides). My husband remembers being scared to death of the guys! But now, to make the holiday more enjoyable for the children, the Pieten have become swell guys who do acrobatics and tricks, dance and sing, and throw candy and other goodies to the children. Kids nowadays just love the little rascals.

There is, however, much discrepancy over the Sint’s friends. Back when this tradition first started, the Pieten were Sinterklaas’ slaves. This changed in the 50s when they all just became really good friends. The image of a Zwarte Piet may also put many Americans, British, and Canadians ill at ease, due to the fact that they’re not black at all. The Pieten are always played by white people in black face. The story now goes that they get this way from the soot they encounter on their journey down the chimney.

Though this does not seem to phase the Dutch as much as one might think (you will more than likely see at least one or two Afro-Dutch families at any given Sinterklaas celebration), there are a few who are uncertain about how they feel about the tradition and some that are downright offended. There is, at the moment, talk of making them Regenboog Pieten (Rainbow Pieten), with each Piet painted a different color of the rainbow.

This blog entry’s title “Six to Eight Black Men” was taken from the title of a comedic piece by David Sedaris. It is a very funny take on a foreigner’s reaction to a Dutchie’s description of this holiday. Watch the video below. For a transcript of the entire piece, click here.

December 19th marked the final day readers of Clogs and Tulips: An American in Holland were able to vote in the most recent poll: “Zwarte Piet is a…” Votes are all in and tallied and as follows:

59% – a harmless tradition
37% – a racist caricature
4% – not sure
Be sure to participate in the next poll “What do you think of healthcare in the Netherlands.” To vote, just go to the upper right-hand margin of the blog page, select your answer, and click Vote. You may only vote once. The cut off for votes will be January 19, 2010 at 7:26 am Central European time.

For more information on Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, here are the following links:

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Miracle on 34th Street

Took marrying a Dutchman and moving to the Netherlands to realize that there’s Dutch in this movie!

Miracle on 34th Street is an American Christmas classic. The original film came out in 1947 starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, and Natalie Wood. A later version directed by the late John Hughes hit theaters in 1994 starring Mara Wilson as Susan. The story revolves around a young girl brought up not to believe in Santa Claus. That is until her mother happens to hire the real one to work as the Santa in Macy’s Department Store in New York City. If there ever was a story that embodied the spirit of Christmas, this is it.

My family sat down every year during the holidays to watch this movie. So much so that, as a child, I truly believed that it was only at the Macy’s in New York where you could find the real Santa Claus. But eventually the story grew old and family time grew sparse, and our annual viewing of Miracle on 34th Street became a thing of the past. I can’t even tell you the last time I saw it.

The years flew by and my brother and I were soon adults. Only just two short years ago, I met my husband – a Dutchman. Soon after, I found myself on a one-way flight to the Netherlands where I would begin to make new friends, discover new hobbies, excite new interests, see new things, start a new job, and learn a new language. These adventures became – and still make up – my everyday life, which can cause you to forget how special your circumstances are.

In a past entry, I mentioned being asked a favor by a director friend of mine back in the States. He told me he was directing Miracle on 34th Street and that he needed my (and/or my husband’s) help. Having a husband that’s not so into Christmas and having not seen the film myself in years, I was clueless as to what kind of assistance we could possibly offer. Turns out, in one of the scenes in the play, a young girl is presented to Santa who had just come to the US from an orphanage in Rotterdam. The cartoon light bulb over my head instantly came to life. My husband and I took about thirty minutes to Skype with the young actress playing the Dutch orphan, going over pronunciations, teaching Dutch Christmas songs, and reading the lines aloud for the girl’s father to record.

The next day, I stopped by the Media Markt to buy the movie, but to no avail. The store didn’t carry either version. Neither did the Free Record Shop. So I resigned myself to waiting until we returned to the US for the holidays where I would definitely be able to find the film (and at a much better price thanks to the weakness of the US dollar). But, when I told my parents about it while they were visiting for Thanksgiving, my dad wanted to look the scene up online so he could see it for himself.

Mind you: the Dutch is terrible, the lyrics to Sinterklaas Kapoentje are not entirely correct, and the American accents dominate. My husband and I had to listen to it three times before we could understand everything that was being said. And Dutch is his native language! It’s also a poorly made clip – clearly someone holding a video camera to the television. But, here’s the clip nevertheless, which is worth the time to watch if for no other reason than to indulge in nostalgia. 

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How to write a Sinterklaas poem

Tomorrow, the Dutch will be celebrating all over the country. In Belgium, the festivities will begin a day later. But both countries are celebrating the same holiday: Sinterklaas. The holiday celebrates the day before (in Belguim’s case, the day of) the anniversary of Saint Nicolaas’ naming.

The adult way to celebrate is to have a pakjes avond (gifts night). Usually, you are given the name of a person to purchase a gift for. However, nothing in the Netherlands is ever that simple.

The gift is usually something small, inexpensive, and silly and involves more than just wrapping the item and handing it over. Sometimes packaging gets creative. My husband once bought a gift for a friend who was into photography. The gift itself was a photo album which he built a casing for in the shape of a camera using toilet paper rolls and tape. Another reveler constructed an alarm clock out of cardboard in which to hide the gift of an alarm. The recipient of this particular present was known for his/her inability to be on time.

That’s all well and good, but the big deal is the poem (gedicht). Yes, the poem. Each gift is accompanied by a funny poem about the person who is to receive the gift. Usually the poem pokes a bit of fun at the person, relays events in their lives, hints their relationship to the giver, and gives clues as to what the gift might be. The receiver then tries to guess what the gift is before opening it. And, yes, your poem must rhyme. The typical rhyming scheme of a Sinterklaas poem is A, A, B, B. For example:

Sinterklaas was glad to hear
From Piet that you were good this year!
Since you hadn’t been good the years before,
Of what to get you he wasn’t sure.

The last words of the first two lines rhyme (A, A) and the last words in the last two lines rhyme with each other (B, B). To ensure that your poem has the same flow when read by others (your giftee must read your poem aloud before opening the cadeau), make sure you check your meter. Clapping syllables can help. There are several different rhythms you can incorporate using accented and non-accented beats. This one uses (very loosely) iambic pentameter.

The example above is actually a portion of the poem I wrote for my ‘Secret Sinterklaas’ this year. I opted not to get creative with the wrapping, though I do plan to do something fun with the way I ‘package’ the poem. It took me enough time to do the poem (lucky for me, I got to write it in English) and I’d prefer not to make things any harder on myself than I have to! If you’re not a Shakespeare but would still like to participate in this Dutch tradition, there are cheats in the form of Sinterklaas poem generators (in Dutch).

So grab your pen or keyboard and get writing. You don’t have much time left!

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A Year Without Christmas

On November 19, 2009, I entered my first writing contest. I figured I couldn’t really call myself a writer until I entered one.

The contest was for Cynic Online Magazine, a publication that does what it can to live up to it’s name. Cynic was looking for stories involving the holiday season. Only this time, they wanted the real deal: mushy, heartfelt, a true embodiment of everything wonderful about this time of year.

So I sat down with my laptop and over 2,000 words later had my entry. I sent it in, not having had anyone proofread it, and waited to see what happened.

Today I received this email congratulating me for winning one of their honorable mentions!

No prize money and no judges’ feedback, but it will be published in their December issue and it can be seen online with the other winners.

Why am I writing about this here on an expat blog? Well, take some time to read the story and you’ll see…

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