Saturday, November 14, 2009

Old traditions die hard (part I)

It is that time of year again, the greatest friend of all children is coming to town... Sinterklaas. Why are we all so excited and who is this bloke with his long beard, all dressed to impress and why are we full of anticipation about it? Today I want to share an age-old tradition with you, that bares a lot of resemblance to Santa Claus. In fact, our Sinterklaas is his predecessor.

It all started about 1800 years ago when a little boy was born into a wealthy family, was orphaned at a young age, became a priest and later in life a bishop in  Myra. Many legends are told of him, starting from his birth. They all have a great compassion and generosity towards others in common and a great will to live a spiritual life. Although no one knows exactly when he was born or died, it is an accepted fact that he died on december 6th sometime during the 4th century in Myra where he was burried. Later on his bones were stolen from the original tomb and relocated to Bari in Italy where a huge crypt and ditto cathedral were built.

As with any Saint, there are lots and lots of stories told about Nicholas, but two of them lead up to why he is seen as a protector of children and giftgiver. The first of the most widely known legends is that of the 3 children or students murdered by an innkeeper and put in a pickling tub. When somehow Nicholas gets hold of the meat, he brings the boys back to life. Another story tells of a widower with 3 daughters for whom he can't afford a dowry. In those days, this meant that it was impossible for the women to marry and they would probably end up slaves or prostitutes. When Nicholas hears of this, he secretly throws 3 pieces of gold through the open window on seperate occasions, thus providing the dowry and saving the life and honour of the young women.

These are the most important ingredients for the main festivities: Sinterklaasavond or Pakjesavond. On the eve of december 6th Sinterklaas visits our homes with his helpers and brings us presents. Some of which have not changed over de years and still remind us of the ancient stories, for example:  chocolate coins, wrapped in gold or silver foil as a reminder of the dowries or a large, gingerbread man reminding us of the students he brought back to life or the possibility of a good marriage candidate. As was the case with the coins he provided for the girls' dowries, he is usually not seen, but simply leaves a huge sack of gifts on the doorstep.

But the tradition doesn't apply only to the evening of december 5th. There is a building up to that moment, full of anticipation. To understand this, you must know one more important story of how Nicholas once rescued his ship from a heavy storm when traveling from the holy land back to his home after making a pilgrimage. By praying he was able - or so it is told - to calm the waves and let the winds subside thus saving not only his own life, but that of the crew as well. This made him the patron of sailors and voyagers.

Every year in late november, as the Pakjesboot - the steamboat - arrives in a harbour somewhere in the Netherlands it marks the start of a festive season. Sinterklaas is everywhere: in every store, home or school. Everywhere you can hear the childrens' songs that are only sung during this season. Also, another tradition starts on this day: children putting a shoe in front of the fireplace or the doorstep (most houses lacking a fireplace nowadays, this is a practical solution). It is believed that at night, Sinterklaas roams the roofs of our homes mounted on his horse, assisted by one of his helpers. The children usually put an apple, carrot or some hay in their shoes for the horse to eat, which is then exchanged by a small gift. This custom might have something to do with the legend of the dowries, as some versions state that the coins landed in the shoes of the girls that were set in front of the fireplace to dry.

Today our season has started, he has arrived and all are filled with joy and anticipation. So far I have just talked about the history of the feast. But there is so much more to say about the inner meaning of this time of year and its relation to the upcoming christmas season. This post would become way to long if I wrote about these aspects too. Let me close by saying that to me, the most beautifull aspect, and the purpose of the giftgiving, is the fact that it is a challenge to find gifts that meet the needs - not merely the wants - of others. I believe, that when you are forced to really connect to one another, to find out each others needs, you are doing justice to yourself, the other and a higher cause. This connecting is what makes this season so festive, warm and loving.

A gift consists not in what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC-65) Roman philosopher and playwright.


  1. Yes, I agree with that. We had just this discussion in our home this weekend.

    I enjoyed your legends. I had never heard the stories before.


  2. This is such a dear story, Dees! Thanks for telling it. St. Nicholas, an earlier form, and the intent to discern what is really NEEDED, as opposed to wanted. Sometimes what is really needed is not a material thing. Sometimes it is understanding or love. How can I give the non-material things? That is the question raised as I read your wonderful post! Thanks! And, happy Sinterklassavond to you!


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