Tuesday, November 21, 2006


on saturday after enjoying a lekker lunch of fried fish and french fries (or dutch fries, i guess), we walked to the train station nearby to enjoy a dutch christmas tradition: "intocht."

intocht is the incoming of sinterklaas and his helper "zwarte piet" (lit: black peter). sinterklaas is the original santa claus, but instead of living at the north pole with a bunch of elves and reindeer, he instead lives in spain with his helper, black peter. he comes to the netherlands on a boat and on 5 december (his birthday) he leaves goodies in the shoes of all the good little boys and girls. intocht happens in every village across the netherlands, but the big official one is on 5 december. if you've been bad this year, then sinterklaas will take you back to madrid with him. (on a dreary day like today with less then 8 hours of daylight, madrid sounds glorious. but to dutch boys and girls, it's actually a scary thing.)

our intocht was pretty small and gezellig. we got to the station about a half hour before sinterklaas arrived to make sure we got a good spot to view the festivities. (in hengelo he comes on a train, since there are no ports here for his boat to dock in.) all the little ones were dressed up like black peter, which would have been cute had it not been so offensive and politically incorrect: they all had black face paint on. apparently there's some confusion about black peter, whether he's black because he's a moor that comes from spain, or if he's black because he's actually a chimney sweep. either way, it's really awful to see all these people dressing up with black face paint. a strange practice for a country that's otherwise so liberal and openminded.

but anyway, we waited around taking pictures of the itty bitties all dressed up, and listened to a marching band play christmas songs. (a funny note about our marching band here: hengelo is a small, backwoods town, and so the musicians here aren't the most outstanding: as the band director was starting a song, one of the tuba players in the back wasn't ready. so he quick grabbed his tuba, but as he was picking it up, he dropped his hat. so now he has to pick up his hat and put it on. by the time he fixed himself up, the song was almost over. how quaint and funny!) we didn't recognize any of the tunes, but all the wee ones knew all the words. in fact, in order to get presents from sinterklaas you have to sing songs as loud as you can. that part was actually really cute and sweet. i need to learn these songs so i can sing along next year!

sinterklaas arrived a little past 2 pm on his giant white stallion, amerigo, and was the main attraction in a parade that wound through the busy streets of hengelo. there were close to 200 black peters handing out candy and cookies to the children, and the marching band led the way playing christmas songs. now he "lives" in the little house attached to the catholic church around the corner from our house. i don't know if you can visit him there or not, but i'll find out and let you all know.

i'd like to point out with these pictures that they were all taken at about 2 pm... notice how low the sun is and how long the shadows are. hard to believe that we're still one month away from the solstice.

on another note, we still don't have internet at home, but our stuff arrived last night -- my spice rack, our bed, my massage table, our winter coats, etc. hooray!


Valerie said...

The way I learned the Sinterklaas en Zwarte Piet story, and why Piet is black, is just a little different. Not 'just a chimney sweep', definately not a moor...
Sinterklaas has many helpers, who are all much younger then him. Since he's old, he can't go through the chimney himself anymore. Also, there's much too many houses and children to visit all by himself. He just couldn't do it alone. Fortunately he has his faithful helpers, who are all named Piet...
So Sinterklaas rides his horse on top of the houses, the Pieten walk or bike or climb around him. He points out what presents should go down which chimney, and the Pieten actually climb down the chimney for him and back up (and they bring the carrots for the horse up with them again too).
The tradition of Sinterklaas goes so far back that there were still fireplaces in all houses to keep people home. Obviously when Piet would climb down the chimney, he'd get soot all over him. His clothes, he could change, but eventually he couldn't get his skin clean anymore, he turned black. (You know that in the days Sinterklaas first started people who'd work in coal mines, or actual chimney sweepers often literally ot black as well, so that was a believable story to the children)

And that's how Piet got to be black, he was just being helpful, helping Sinterkaas and making sure all the kids would be attended to. And Piet ha a nice life. He gets to live in a wonderful palace in Spain, go on a boat, ride bikes, play with the horse, help with presents and pull all sorts of pranks, plus, everyone loves him. They love him so much, they want to be him...

So, yeah, it's partially the chimney sweep thing, but not in a negative way, but in a historically logical way.

Elizabeth said...

Oh my goodness, you finally have your things! I hope you've been having a great time unpacking and making home. Ahhh, I'm -so- relieved you have your things.

And I know how important traditions are, but Black Peter? The black/dark person being the bad one...that's an idea way past done. You're right, it's strange for a country so otherwise progressive. I'm sure there are folks in the Netherlands talking about how offensive and bad that tradition is....right?

Foster said...

Hi guys! I don't think it's a good idea to dictate to others what is and is not acceptable behavior in their own homeland. In fact, I find it presumptuous.

I was uncomfortable eating a roast rabbit for Easter dinner when I stayed with a German host family. At the time, my little sister had pet rabbits at home. But as a guest in their home, it was not my place to take offense at that.

The little kids don't know they look like little Al Jolson minstrels to American eyes. It's not their intent either. I don't think it's a big deal.

On the plus side, the rabbit was delicious. Also, Germans put rum and brandy in their Easter chocolates! Delicious AND alcoholic! I could definitely get behind that.