Traditionally, both St. Nicolaas and Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) arrive in ports in the Netherlands on a steam ship towards the end of November. A white horse awaits the holy man who rides through the streets. In the week or so before St. Nicolaas’ evening, children would leave a carrot for the horse in their shoe (few of us wore clogs!) by the fireplace. The evidence that St. Nicolaas and Zwarte Piet had come down the chimney to visit was there the next morning: some sweets, chocolates or a small piece of marzipan in those shoes.
Black Peter is a helper, distributing sweets to the children who’ve been good. However, he also carries a large bag. Any child that has been misbehaving during late November-early December risks being noticed and being carried off to Spain in that bag.
The competition from Father Christmas has become stronger over the last decades. In recent years, there has also been a controversy in the Netherlands about Zwarte Piet and a small UN Human Rights deputation even came to investigate the accusations of racism and colonialism. Some councils and schools now have a white helper (not blacked up) and elsewhere St. Nicolaas visits on his own. The controversy is ongoing with demonstrations, petitions and activism.
On the 5th of December I will be in the UK, on a writing week. I still love marzipan, but I am cutting down on sweets and I have asked St. Nicolaas for a large batch of good, new poems! The poem is from my debut collection Another life (Oversteps Books Ltd).
St. Nicolaas, 5 December 1957
We’re crowded in our dining room.
Grandmother has closed her face.
There’s me in pyjamas, smiling.
I’m next to my father’s father.
His heart will give out soon.
I’ve just been given a book;
animal stories with illustrations.
My brother too smiles, because
our mother isn’t there.
She may be in the kitchen
or upstairs, ill, thinking
about walking out on us.
My father has taken this photo.
He too will have closed his face.