Intocht Sinterklaas

Today Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) officially arrived! Hence, even though I had an overbearing amount of work to do, I felt it was something I couldn’t miss.

Sinterklaas is the Netherlands equivalent of  Father Christmas/Santa Claus. However he is a little different, he arrives in November – which is what today is about – and on the 5th December the Dutch children receive their presents. Traditionally this includes a surprise (“surpreesa”) and a poem. A surprise is the vessel that contains the present, it is handmade and should be relevant to the present receiver. My neighbour Sofie is organising this among our friendship group for the 5th so that will be really fun. The children get really excited for this and there is a news program every day after today until the 5th telling the Netherlands about what Sinterklaas has been up to. Hence “it’s the most important Holiday in Holland”.

So Linda, Giselle and I headed to town at 12.30. We didn’t quite know where we were going, but I assumed it would be somewhere near the canal, as Sinterklaas would arrive by boat.  Helped by a lady, this turned out to be true.

We arrived at 12.55 and Sinterklaas was due at 13.00. I had to be given a “backy” to town as two weeks ago Klementina had lent the use of my bike to her coach surfer but the chain had fallen off in town so it had been left there. We took our spots in front of the water and waited to see boats arriving under the bridge.

The turnout was a little disappointing, but as the ‘real’ Sinterklaas was arriving in Dordrecht I thought this might be the reason why. To all my Dutch friends even the Sinterklaas in Doredrecht isn’t the real one. Turns out it is the same person every year (an amazing job!), but last year their one retired along with his horse. This makes Sinterklaas a little less exciting.

Sinterklaas is unlike Father Christmas, who can be anyone (including my grandpa) and the children don’t mind at all. Father Christmas, also, does not have a grand arrival in all the major cities in the country. Sinterklaas visits everyone at school and comes round to your house to give you presents on the actual day. Plus you can leave your shoes outside where you can find sweets from him the next morning. It is also the place you leave your wish list to him. Father Christmas should be this active!

After ten minutes we saw some waving hands on the other side of the bridge, the “Zwarte Pieten” (Sinterklaas’ helpers – who are only similar to elves in the respect that they help). 40 blacked up adults waving at small children, to a foreigner, seems a little weird and the kind of thing they told you became socially unacceptable years ago. However for the Dutch it is perfectly normal. When they were children they didn’t give a second thought to the slavery background, that the spectacle throws up to adult eyes.   

This is forgotten, however, as I had been enlightened on the somewhat ridiculous and apparent racist story of Sinterklaas a month ago. We wave to the colourfully dressed Zwarte Pieten, which includes an entire brass band of them. I thought it would just be one boat but three come through, with the last one pointing backwards and shouting “Sinterklaas” to the dressed up children on the side. The main man himself was soon to arrive. He looked very stunning in his red robe and gave us all a wave.

After he went past we saw people walking along the canal, so we decided to follow the procession. As we did the streets got a little more crowded with tons of children in Zwarte Pieten costumes, plus a few “Sinterlaases”. The main show was obviously up here. Linda was pleased he had a bigger turnout. However a bigger turnout brings its own problems. Mainly, now we can’t see anything. We continue walking turning left and right hoping to find a gap further on, but there wasn’t one.

Eventually the crowd lessened a bit – this must be where he gets off the boat. Some children are standing on a few of the sound system boxes and we can see a little. Linda tries to put me on her shoulders but this doesn’t work. I can fit on the boxes I decided. There was room for two so Giselle also comes up. “Can you make room for me?”, asks Linda and we do.

Sinterklaas arrives and we can see the odd glimpse of him. The children around us are very excited. Something about ‘bumble piet’ gets said over the speakers, of course we don’t understand, it’s in Dutch. Music plays but we don’t see anything exciting going on. People are leaving but I’m confused why. This does mean however that the kids who were on the boxes had moved, we could get a better look!

It’s not that much better but we see some bigger boxes behind so we climb them. “I don’t see what they’re looking at”, says Linda. “Oh there in the middle”, I point. A Piet is doing acrobatics on two pieces of cloth. It’s impressive but goes on a bit too long. Especially when they’re trying to entertain children who have the attention span of the dog from Up!

It is announced Sinterklaas will be heading to the Dom so we decide to leave, but everyone is going in the opposite direction so we choose to stay. “I want to see his horse”, says Linda. We see a walkway being made through the crowd but a security guard stands in front of us – charming. The Zwarte Piet are coming and give out sweets to the kids (which turned out to be “peppernoten”, not sweets – a biscuit type thing that only come out for the Sinterklaas season, a bit like cream eggs do). They give us some and then the big guy himself walks by, I get to shake his hand – task complete for the day.

We head back up the canal to where we left our bikes and we notice the massive balloons that were by the water earlier had been given out. We were a little disappointed. Further along Linda sees a banner. It is only attached by one cable tie, so she tried to get it off with her key. It isn’t working. She asks an official looking man if we can have it and he tells us to ask someone in a red coat. He didn’t seem that bothered. If we couldn’t get the cable tie off we could rip the banner so we try to and it breaks the cable tie! We quickly fold up the banner and make a hasty exit.

Thankfully there is no one in a red coat coming after us. Linda kindly gives it to me as a present and I am very grateful. We get to our bikes and we see lots of children are sitting on the road side, something must be happening here too so we decide to stick around. We head into a shop to bide some time. I see some Zwarte Piet trousers, but unfortunately they were for kids and would’ve looked ridiculous on me.

When we head to pay we hear music on the street. There is a parade of Zwarte Pieten now. We find a good spot to stand and along rides Sinterklaas on his majestic white horse. It doesn’t matter he’s not the real one, it’s still fun. Here we also bump into Alizee and some other UCUers and have a chat. Then we head back to campus. Guilt tells us we can’t put off work anymore – as much as we would like too.

When I get back I decide to put the banner up. It’s a little ridiculous in size as it is as tall as my wall and I have to hammer in some drawing pins to keep it up! It looks awesome though – a very good day.