In the Netherlands, we celebrate St. Nicholas’ Eve on the 5th of December.
Sinterklaas arrives in the country about three weeks before, on his steam ship from Spain. He is accompanied by his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten [Black Petes] who pass out small spiced cookies called pepernoten and candy to the children. Sinterklaas then gets on his white horse and parades through town, cheered on by hundreds of young kids.
My grandfather used to be Sinterklaas at the airbase where he worked and for the children in our neighborhood. He stopped doing this when I was a baby, so I have no memories of that. The home movie of his last Sinterklaas visit to our house is one of my favorite family history “records.” I am the baby in his lap.
I remember as a small child, how excited I was to put out my shoe in the evening. I would put in a carrot for Sinterklaas’ horse, and at night, the helpers would put in a small gift, like chocolate cigarets (!), some juggling balls, or a toy car.
When I was about six, I began notice the “fake” Sinterklazen. The ones that did not sound like the real deal, that had a shaggy beard, that were too young, too thin, too tall. I learned that Sinterklaas had helpers because he could not be everywhere. The idea that Pieten could get into our house scared me a little, if they could get in, what would keep the burglars out? We did not have a chimney, so I did not buy that.
It was not long afterwards that my friend next door confided in me that she thought it all a scam. Her explanation made sense to me, and when I confronted my mother she confessed that it was all make-believe. I was really hurt and decided that I would never believe anything anybody told me anymore unless I had proof. A character trait that has served me well as a genealogist 🙂
This year, I am the mother of a six-year-old who is starting to ask questions. I encourage him to think for himself. When he asks me how the Pieten get inside, I ask him what he thinks. When he points out the shaggy beard, I agree with him that that is probably not the real Sint.
Tomorrow we celebrate Sinterklaas with our family. The magic continues for one more year.