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Saturday, 25 December 2010

Merry Sinterklass!

Left: Sinterklass with 'Black Petes' his mischievous helpers.

Sinterklaas and his Black Pete usually carry a bag which contains candy for nice children and a roe, a chimney sweep's broom made of willow branches, used to spank naughty children.

Some of the older Sinterklaas songs make mention of naughty children being put in the bag and being taken back to Spain.

The Zwarte Pieten toss candy around, a tradition supposedly originating in Sint Nicolaas' story of saving three young girls from prostitution by tossing golden coins through their window at night to pay their father's debts.

There are various explanations of the origins of the helpers. The oldest explanation is that the helpers symbolize the two ravens Hugin and Munin who informed Odin on what was going on. In later stories the helper depicts the defeated devil.

The devil is defeated by either Odin or his helper Nörwi, the black father of the night. Nörwi is usually depicted with the same staff of birch (Dutch: "roe") as Zwarte Piet.

Pre-Christian Europe

Parallels have been drawn between the legend of Sinterklaas and the figure of Odin, a major god amongst the Germanic peoples and worshipped in North and Western Europe prior to Christianization.

Left: Huginn and Muninn ('thought' and 'memory') are characters from Norse mythology. They were ravens belonging to Odin, and served as informers to the Gods.

Since some elements of the Sinterklaas celebration are unrelated to Christianity, there are theories regarding the pagan origins of various customs of the holiday stemming from areas where the Germanic peoples were Christianized and retained elements of their indigenous traditions, surviving in various forms into modern depictions of Sinterklaas. Non-Christian elements in Sinterklaas that arguably could have been of pagan origin:

* Sinterklaas rides the roof tops with his white horse Amerigo; Odin rides the sky with his gray horse Sleipnir.

* Sinterklaas and Odin are both depicted with a long beard.

* Sinterklaas has a staff and mischievous helpers with black faces; Odin has a spear and black ravens as his attributes.

* It has been also claimed that the tradition of children placing their boots filled with carrots, straw or sugar near the chimney for the White horse of Sinterklaas goes back to pre-Christian North Western Europe, where children would place their boots near the chimney for Odin's flying horse, Sleipnir, to eat.

Middle Ages

Originally, the Sinterklaas feast celebrates the name day, 6 December, of the Saint Nicholas (280–342), patron saint of children and sailors.

Saint Nicholas was a Greek bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey.

Left: St. Nicholas saving innocents
Artist: Elisabeth Jvanovsky

In 1087, his relics were furtively translated to Bari, in southeastern Italy; for this reason, he is also known as Nikolaos of Bari.

His fame spread throughout Europe. The Western Christian Church made his name day a Church holiday. In the north of France, he became the patron saint of school children, then mostly in church schools.

Sinterklaas is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colourful Moorish dresses.

These helpers are called 'Zwarte Pieten' (Black Petes). During the Middle-ages Zwarte Piet was a name for the devil.

Having triumphed over evil, it was said that on Saint Nicholas eve the devil was shackled and made his slave.

Although the character of Black Pete later came to acquire racial connotations, his origins were in the devil figure.

Late 20th and 21st Century

The arrival of Sinterklaas into town became a huge event and is broadcasted on national television.

Numerous people dress as Zwarte Pieten in various cities and towns across the Netherlands.

Their faces were blackened to indicate that Zwarte Piet was an imported African servant of Sinterklaas (though some people said Zwarte Piet was a slave who, when Sinterklaas bought him his freedom, was so grateful that he stayed to assist him). Today however, the more politically correct explanation that Pete's face is "black from soot" (as Pete has to climb through chimneys to deliver his gifts) is used.

Sinterklaas, Santa Claus, and Christmas

Howard G. Hageman, of New Brunswick Theological Seminary, maintains that the tradition of celebrating Sinterklaas in New York existed in the early settlement of the Hudson Valley.

He agrees that "there can be no question that by the time the revival of St. Nicholas came with Washington Irving, the traditional New Netherlands observance had completely disappeared."

However, Irving's stories prominently featured legends of the early Dutch settlers, so while the traditional practice may have died out, Irving's St. Nicholas may have been a revival of that dormant Dutch strand of folklore.

In his 1812 revisions to A History of New York, Irving inserted a dream sequence featuring St. Nicholas soaring over treetops in a flying wagon — a creation others would later dress up as Santa Claus.

Left : Portrait of Washinton Irving.

But was Irving the first to revive the Dutch folklore of Sinterklaas? In New York, two years earlier John Pintard published a pamphlet with illustrations of Alexander Anderson in which he calls for to make Saint Nicholas patron Saint of New York and to start a Sinterklaas tradition.

He was apparently assisted by the Dutch, because in his pamphlet he included an old Dutch Sinterklaas poem with English translation.

In the Dutch poem, Saint Nicholas is referred to as 'Sancta Claus'.

Ultimately, his initiative helped Sinterklaas to pop up as Santa Claus in the Christmas celebration, which returned - freed of episcopal dignity - via England and later Germany to Europe again.


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