Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Old traditions die hard (part II)

Saturday-afternoon I went shopping with my oldest (a 10 year old girl) for gifts. As I wanted her to really think about the people she was picking out presents for (her grandparents, dad and brother), I didn't tell her what to choose. I just took her to the Wereldwinkel (a fair trade shop, the link is to a Dutch site) and told her to think about these people. It was amazing at how easy she came up with nice, loving gifts for all of them and while she normally is very indecisive she was now done in a sec. This shows my point in part I of this story of how important it is to look for something that is needed and not merely wanted. What my daughter did was pick out things that reminded her of what she knew others loved doing or that she wanted to share her feelings about. (At one point I had to leave the store, because she also wanted to find a gift for me, I cannot wait until I can unwrap this little piece of her love and attention.)

Later the same afternoon we spent some time working on what we call a "surprise". This is not merely a surprise in the litteral sense, you could compare it to a piñata. She has to make one for the celebration at school but it is a tradition mostly among grown-ups as they don´t believe in Sinterklaas anymore. It all starts with drawing a name out of a bowl and buying a present for that person. Then you make a gift-wrap that symbolizes something that has been important for that person over the past year. This can be something funny, something wonderful... Anything will work that can be cast in some form or other. Usually this asks some craftiness of the person, so the making is as much fun as the unwrapping on Sinterklaasavond. To finish up the whole is wrapped in giftpaper and a special poem is made and stuck to the gift. Now what relates this tradition to the Saint we met earlier?

In early human history Europe was home to amongst others the Germanic peoples. There was no monotheistic God in their presence and their beliefs were highly dependent on natural phenomena as lighting and thunder, and on perceptions of for example the sun- and mooncycles. They left behind an oral tradition that shows a very high level of culturalization and has profoundly influenced our lives till today. In a lot of ways the traditions and rituals around Sinterklaas are not only linked back to the Saint, but also to one of the main God's in the Germanic pantheon: Wodan.

Wodan was represented riding an eight-legged horse, wearing a hat and robe, carrying a lance and mostly accompanied by two raven, called Huginn and Muninn  (Old Norse for thought and memory).  These raven travelled between the worlds of gods and men, conveying stories of how mankind was behaving upon which the gods could choose to interfere. In the days of winter, when thunderstorms and lightning, rain and snow made work outside impossible I imagine men, women and children all gathered to tell stories of how their god Wodan was riding the clouds judging men who would be worthy and brave enough to sit beside him in his great hall Walhalla. Furthermore they would probably recite epic poems, one of which tells of how Wodan received the Runes during a rite that lasted nine nights, in which he hung upside down from a tree. During these winternights they would also feast, eat and drink together. They would make a lot of noise to scare the ghosts that roam the dark nights, they would celebrate the turn of the year and the return of light at their Yule festival.

The common components in these historic roots of Western European cultural heritage and that of the Eastern European cult of Saint Nicholas are quite obvious. It is easy to see that after christianity had concurred Western Europe, the bearded God was readily transformed into a Saint with a miter, staff and robe, riding on a horse. The knowledge of all men was transformed in the celebration of Sinterklaas to a book of knowledge in which all doings - right and wrong - over the past year were accounted for. This knowledge being gathered by Sinterklaas and his aid Zwarte Piet (black peter). Because even then the rule "old habits die hard" applied, a lot of age-old customs where woven into the christian version of the festivities. Often, simply to make the people more susceptible to conversion. Even in the late 1800's Dutch city councils tried to ban Sinterklaasfestivities because they were too papistic. They didn't succeed, the traditions are too ingrained in our Calvinistic society to ever loose ground.

So back to making a surprise, because here again it is imperative that you somehow know the person whose ballot you drew. Like I  mentioned earlier, an important event in this persons life over the past year is most likely to be adressed. Like the ravens told Wodan and Zwarte Piet tells Sinterklaas of your whereabouts. This does not mean that it has to be all very serious or reproachful. Even though there are still parents who frighten children with a Sinterklaas that will punish them if they don't behave, it is an occassion par excellence to bring some humour into play! With a rhyming verse to accompany the gift we usually laugh a great deal. It softens harsh reality and deepens a sense of belonging and sharing. That is why our indigenous Sinterklaas is so dear to me and I wouldn't trade it for a 1000 Santa's in the world!

I have only 3 nights left till Sinterklaasavond, so off I am to write my poems and wrap some gifts!

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