Tag Archives: Zwarte Piet

St Nicholaas 2020

St Nicholaas, Public Domain, Pixabay

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.

St Nicholaas and Zwarte Piet, olliebrands0 via Pixabay


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…

St Nicholaas sweets and cookies, nietjuh via Pixabay

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.

St. Nicolaas, 5 December 1957

 

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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.