Transcript of the video lesson (scroll for more text):
Hi, Welcome to the Learndutch.org Dutch Sinterklaas Tutorial.
If you are not Dutch and you want to know, in just 10 minutes, where the most important Dutch celebration of the year is about. Then watch this video. And of course I’ll teach you the words you need to know if you want to celebrate it with the Dutch.
Attention: our neighour countries, have also some sort of celebration of Saint Nicholas, but not to that extent as the Netherlands. This video is about the Dutch version of the Saint Nicholas celebration.
So, this is Sinterklaas. He is the main figure. We also say: Sint Nicolaas. On the 5th of December we celebrate his birthday. But he arrives already in the Netherlands in the middle of November. This is called de “intocht”. That’s another word for arrival, but we actually only use it when we talk about Sinterklaas.
And he arrives on a “stoomboot” (steamboat). From Spain, because that’s where he lives. And we believe that this boat is full of presents. Now is he alone on the boat? As you can see not. Let’s have a closer look, Sinterklaas has a team of helpers. So called, “zwarte pieten” (black petes). Now this might seem a bit strange that we have a celebration where a white man is the boss and the workers are black. At the moment there is indeed a lot of discussion about it, and I come back to that at the end of the video.
Now typical features of Sinterklaas.
He rides on a horse, a “schimmel”. You may know that word as translation of fungus. But it can also mean: a grey horse. And he has a red robe, which we call his “tabberd”.
Other things to recognise Sinterklaas:
He has “een staf” (a gold crosier), een mijter (a mitre), en een “baard” (a beard). And he also has a book: “het boek van sinterklaas”, which contains all information about the children and how they behaved during the year.
During the three weeks that Sinterklaas is in the country, he rides on his horse on the rooftops of the houses. In this period, the children may put once or twice a week, before they go to sleep, a shoe at the chimney. Or at the radiator if the house does not have a chimney. This is called “je schoen zetten”. In the shoe, you do something tasty for the horse, like a carrot or some sugar cubes.
And then, during the night Zwarte Piet climbs down the chimney, takes the carrot for the horse and puts a present in the shoe. This is by the way the reason that Zwarte Piet is black. It is the soot on his face.
It’s not only presents, it’s also sweet things. Typical food that we eat during the Sinterklaas period.
- chocolade-letters (you usually get in your shoe the first letter of your name, unless it is sold out) / oh and by the way – each letter has the same weight, my sister was always jealous on my “B” while she has an “I” as a first name… but no reason, because there is absolutely the same amount of chocale.
- Marsepein (marzipan)
- Speculaas (a type of biscuit)
And it no, it’s not all…
- banketletters (a pastry crust with a sugared almond paste filling)
- taaitaai (another type of biscuit)
- borstplaat (as you can see – mainly consists of sugar)
But all those sweet things are only for those who behave !
When I was young, our parents told us how important it was to behave well. Because Zwarte Piet would hit naughty children with his “roe” (bundle of birch twigs) and Sinterklaas would put them in a gunny bag, the so called “zak van Sinterklaas”, to take them with him to Spain. Now with changing views on liberal upbringing, these threats are not anymore part of the story. Spain is also not that bad.
Well, still each child will need to appear in front of Sinterklaas of sit on his knee; while he is reading from his book. Usually a short summary of what the child has achieved during the year, maybe some small recommendations. And of course Sinterklaas usually asks to sing a song. And songs about Sinterklaas we have a lot.
The 5th of December is called “pakjesavond”, a “pakje” is another word for a present wrapped in paper. Usually this is how it happens; the whole family is sitting in the living room. And then suddenly there is someone knocking extremely loud on the door, or even throwing “pepernoten” in the room.
And as a child – that’s when you feel your heart beat. After a few seconds you stand up, walk to the front door, and there is a big bag with presents !
And you understand, for parents this is a yearly request to the neighbour for help.
But how do you celebrate when you get older?
Well, then comes the next tradition. It is the moment in the year when you can show your poetic and creative talent. This is how it works, people who decided to celebrate the evening together draw names. And the name you draw is the one you need to give a present. But you should use all your talents and include a poem, a “sinterklaasgedicht”. I think – it can be compared to what is called Secret Santa in the US and the UK.
Some facts about Sinterklaas.
The figure of Sinterklaas is based on Saint Nicholas of Myra, a saint who lived in the 4th century in what is now Turkey. Now why does our celebration says he is from Spain? Well that has to do with the fact that the body of this saint, was re-burried in Bari Italy, which belonged to Spain at the moment that the celebration became popular.
It is believed that one legend of Saint Nicholas of Myra was bringing back to life three murdered children. So that is why he is the patron of the children.
But he is also the saint of the sailors and fishermen, due to a legend where he helped a boat out of the storm. And therefore many harbour cities have Saint Nicholas a their patron. For example Amsterdam. One of the main chuches in Amsterdam is the Nicholas Church.
Santa Claus is derived from Sinterklaas. Not the other way around. Everytime I tell about Sinterklaas to someone from the US; I get the answer – oh it is your version of Santa Claus. No, Santa Claus is your version of our Sinterklaas.
And then about Zwarte Piet. His history does not date from the 4th century. He first appears in the celebration in 1850, in a book of the Amsterdam teacher Jan Schenkman.
Of course we will never know why he added a black character as the helper of Sinterklaas, and wether the intention was to refer to slavery. There are many theories about it, although none of them is a direct reference to slavery.
One theory is actually the other way around. Zwarte Piet was added to the story in a period that there was euforism about the abolishment of slavery. His character would be symbol for that, refering to the legend of Saint Nicholas who bought free an Ethiopian slave, who then became his helper. But we don’t know.
In any case the story is that Zwarte Piet is black from the soot in the chimney.
At the moment there is a lot of discussion about it in the Netherlands, the so called “zwartepietendiscussie”. Almost any talk show discusses this issue from September till December.
What is the matter. The Netherlands has quite a signifant population of coloured people, because of earlier colonies, like Suriname. A celebration where a white man is the boss of black men who do the work, is a bit strange. Especially if you consider the Dutch coloured people have their historical roots in slavery. It is not so strange that some say, we do not like this element in the tradition.
And here is where the discussion is about. One part of the population wants to change the “zwarte piet” and give him other colours. The other part wants to stick to the tradition.
Now I hope the discussion will slow down a bit. We are Dutch, so we always manage to find a compromise. What the compromise here will be I don’t know, but I guess the figure of Zwarte Piet will gradually change from a totally black character to probably a white person with black soot spots on his face. We will see.
Well that’s it. You now know everything to celebrate Sinterklaas with the Dutch OR to have a traditional zwarte-pieten discussie.
For more videos to learn Dutch, check our youtube channel. See you there !