St Nicholaas arrives in the Netherlands by boat, each year at a different port. He then rides through the town on his white horse. It’s on the mid-November Saturday. In the three weeks’ run-up to St Nicholaas Eve (5 December) he will appear in other towns, always with at least one Zwarte Piet who carries a large bag with goodies and, traditionally, a birch bundle to clean a chimney. But, as children we were told that, if you were naughty, you’d get spanked – even worse, you might be put inside that bag and taken away to Spain …
Since 2010, there has been growing concern about Zwarte Piet and racism. There have been demonstrations for and against the tradition. Motorways have been blocked. Arrests made.
The arrival of St Nicholaas attracts large crowds: not good in a pandemic. This year the Dutch, pragmatic as ever, have killed two birds with one stone. The holy man arrived in a non-existent village, called Zwalk. The verb Zwalken means to drift, wander about. His arrival was shown live on Dutch television on 14 November. There were no crowds, no protesters.
Here is the white horse, a display in the famous Bijenkorf store in Amsterdam.
The traditional sweets connected with St Nicholaas were already in the shops late September when I was due to travel back to Manchester. Alphabet letters, capitals in dark or milk chocolate, along with marzipan figures, gingerbread cookies (pepernoten), speculaas filled with almond paste…
Once children know the truth about St Nicholaas – that he is based on a Greek bishop who lived 270 – 343 in Myra, in what is now Turkey – and they have pocket money, they can buy presents for other members of their family. Traditionally, these are hidden in a surprise – a humourous, unusual or personalised packaging, made of papier maché and painted. These may come with a “poem” that is supposed to come from the good old man himself. Poor St Nicholaas can only compose doggerel!
St Nicolaas writes to my dear brother.
He wants to know: Why is it so much bother
for you to take a turn at doing the dishes?
The knives and forks are not dangerous fishes!
Coffee cups, soup bowls, the dirty plate:
Why do you always leave it so late?
The plastic bowl with soapy water isn’t deep.
Honestly, you won’t drown, you could do it in your sleep!
Promise St Nicholaas that you’ll improve
and he’ll send you some presents and his love.