Tuesday 2 December 2008

The Difference between...

Mums and Dads...

Husband: "You've both been such good boys on the way back from school that I think you deserve some snoepjes (sic) from your Sinta Klaas bowl." (Non Dutch readers, don't worry - explanation follows...).

He fetches the two little bowls down from the highest shelf in the kitchen, where they are stored out of reach for good reason. And it ain't 'them pesky mice'. I wait for him to allow the Boys to take a small selection of sweets before returning the bowls to the shelf. Instead, he sits them down at the table, each with a bowl in front of them.

After 5 minutes of intense concentrated eating from my two sons, I decide enough is enough and go to the table. "OK, choose two more each and we'll put the rest away."

Husband: "Come on, they hardly ever get sweets. Let them have some more..."

I leave them to it, and 5 minutes later hear Husband exclaiming in surprise at how many more sweets have disappeared and commenting on their lack of self control.

I refrain from pointing out that he (and I, for that matter) are more than capable of demolishing a jumbo bag of crisps / sweets or packet of biscuits in less time than it's taken the Boys to eat a handful of sweets. They're 3 and 5. They would have more self control than us because...?

English and Dutch

Before I start with this I must say that the Dutch have a great many wonderful and venerable traditions. They are proud of their heritage - possibly to a fault - and don't take kindly to outside criticism, so I may be laying myself open to death threats here, but what the hell...

I'm sure you know that the jolly old man in red and white we all know and love as Father Christmas, aka Santa Claus, in some part at least owes his origins to the Dutch Sint Niklaas, known affectionately in the Netherlands as Sinta Klaas. The Dutch original, however, is a very different kettle of fish to our benevolent Mr C. For full details read this, and prepare to split your sides laughing at Jaywalker's description of the Belgian version of Saint Nick.

Now, there are many good things about the Sint. He is a little bit stricter than our grandfatherly pushover. Possibly the Dutch Sint is not quite as strict as the Belgian version referred to by Jaywalker, but he's still The Boss. So when you threaten kids with the with-holding of Sinta Klaas's gifts if they don't behave, they know that you're not kidding. He's tough enough to deliver on that threat.

Also, he's not as materialistic as our consumable-mad Father Christmas. His celebration (on the night of the 5th December), is less about expensive presents, and more about family getting together and making or singing something for your loved ones. (I know, I shuddered in horror when I heard that too. Thankfully the Boys are still too young - or at least, Boy #2 is - to go there. I reckon I can get away with no crafts and song-writing until next year, at least...). Nowadays, of course, mass-marketing has put paid to the home-made element to a certain extent, but even so, it's all a little more down-to-earth and less manic than the flurry of ribbon and wrapping paper we experience on the 25th December.

So far, so good. The Sint (traditionally said with a 'The Godfather' - who, frankly, is probably based on Sint Nicklaas - inflexion, and a similarly respectful tone of voice), has Helpers. Just like Mr C. Except not. Because The Sint's helpers are not gleeful elves and dwarves (which, now I see it written down in black and white is actually not that blameless), but Zwarte Piets.

The Zwarte Piets descend on Holland when the Sint arrives, dressed in his red and white bishop's robes, with his white horse in his boat from Spain (don't ask me to explain why that is, I'm hazy) towards the end of November. Their 'job' is to keep an eye on the children. They caper around in the arrival parade after the boat docks in The Hague, following the progress of the horse-back Sint through the streets of the capital, throwing sweets and biscuits into the crowd, playing the fool, and threatening people with sticks if they don't behave. Sometimes they even carry sacks, which badly behaved children are told by their parents are for bundling them up in and sending them back to Spain if they don't smarten up their act.

Oh yes.

The Sint means Business, all right.

The Piets then hang around (or at least, if you are 7 and under, you are told they do), and essentially spy on the young population of the Netherlands on the Sint's behalf until 5th December. If they catch you misbehaving before that date? Forget it. No sweets and biscuits in your shoes left by the the fireplace for Sint Niklaas to find and fill with goodies. No presents. Just a lump of coal or two, and maybe a stick if you've been really bad. (Note: modern parenting being what it is, the Dutch have diluted the punishment somewhat and come up with a sugar version of coal. Which actually tastes quite nice....)

So far, so actually not so bad. But.

But. If you speak any German at all - and let's not beat about the bush, even the Dutch admit to a certain number of similarities between the two languages - you will know that 'zwarte' means black. And here is where the whole thing falls down a bit. Because, wearing a 21st century approximation of 17th century costume (usually executed in an attractive shiny synthetic finish), with black curly wigs on their heads, and a jaunty little colour-coordinated cap, the Zwarte Piets are invariably blacked-up white guys (usually students).

When I tell my friends about this custom, it is at this stage they usually say something like "I'm sorry?" And I say 'yes, you did hear me correctly. Blacked up white guys.'

I love the Dutch. I'm married to one. I would be happy - no, delighted - to live there. But come on, jongens. You don't think that this bit of the Sinta Klaas tradition is just... wrong?


  1. So Funny PM. I read Belgian Waffles' take as well. Rather like the sound of the Sints, both Dutch and Belgian, but agree the cohorts could do with a little adjustment of the PC variety. Does make one squirm a tad - brings back faint memories of the Black and White Minstrels Show (yes, I am that old) which I found discomforting even then. Think my parents leaned towards the punitive version of the Man in Red as when I was 3years old my Christmas Dolls House disappeared overnight because I had been a naughty girl. I have no memory of what I did that was so awful but I can remember being very upset and searching high and low.

    Re the sweets, PD was lucky there were any sweets left in the bowls after giving the boys unfettered access. Hope you didn't have to deal with the resulting sugar high.

  2. I remember getting the lecture about "not talking to strange men - even if they offer you sweets!" when I was very small.

    I promptly approached my mum and kased why it was OK then for a strange man I didn't know to comne into my bedroom in the middle of the night and leave me a lot of sweets?

    It didn't seem right.

  3. Crikey, speechless....which doesn't happen too often...Fun post though! MH

  4. I do love these weird European traditions. Makes Christmas all the more, er, interesting....

    I've tagged you by the way - sorry!

  5. Sharon, I think anyone over, say, 35, has faint memories of the black & white minstrel show - so that definitely doesn't make you old... I mean, 41 is positively teenage these days, isn't it? Isn't it????

    Mud, your poor mum, is all I can say. Someday you will have a child who will put you in just such a situation!

    MH - you and every other non-Dutch person who hears about this. (Speechless, that is)

    NVG - oh good, ideas for posts! (Will check it out later).

  6. I can't comment, I'm Dutch.

  7. Are you sure you're really Dutch, Irene? Because most of the Dutch people I know would certainly have something to say about this post! (Which is why I haven't yet mentioned to Husband that I've written it...)

  8. I'm thinking of pretending to my children that we are Dutch for the next few weeks, just too get some decent behaviour out of them in the run up to the silly season. I draw the line at getting the husband to dress up as a Zwarte Piets though.

  9. I love hearing about other traditions but this one sounds a bit scary. Belgian Waffles account was brilliant too. Hope you had a good sing song. :D

  10. Yes PM, 41 is definitely teenage! there's certainly a teenager between us lol!

  11. Laura, good idea. Unfortunately my two are well aware that after Saturday the Sint disappears and that they can get away with practically anything as far as Father Christmas is concerned.

    Jo, funny enough, we had a bit of a warm up last night when the boys left their shoes out - see later post for full details... The real McCoy happens tomorrow though (or in our house, Saturday - the timing works better!)

    Sharon, thank you for putting my mind at rest. Am off now to squeeze spots, text my mates, and eat too much chocolate...(crikey - I AM a teenager!)


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