As most of you know, I was born and raised in the Netherlands. And every year around this time when the Dutch weather is foggy and cold, St. Nicholas or “Sinterklaas” will arrive in the Netherlands. This annual event in so uniquely Dutch, and I think it is about time I write about it. This blog post will probably a bit longer than most of my previous posts, but I like to explain this feast to my readers because December 5th is the merriest event of the Dutch year when Hollanders exchange gifts AND poke fun at each other.
Why is Santa Claus in this form the exclusive property of the Dutch speaking people? Because of tradition, I guess. St. Nicholas is based on historical fact. He did exist. He was born and he died like the rest of us. He lived from 271 A.D. to December 6, 343. Born of a wealthy family he distributed his fortune among the poor and entered the priesthood. He must have been an extraordinary man. For no sooner had he been buried a fabulous series of legends and miracles sprang into being, and he became the patron saint of sailors and merchants and of children. The cult spread to coastal towns along the Atlantic and the North Sea. The St. Nicholas influence was especially strong in Holland primarily due to his role as patron of sailors and merchants. Holland has a strong seafaring history. By the 17th century the feast of Sinterklaas was firmly established and there were countless folk songs on the subject. When the Dutch settled in the “new world” they introduced their Sinterklaas. That image changed however. All that remains is his name: Santa Claus is a direct derivation of Sinterklaas.
Dutch children know that Sinterklaas lives in Spain. In Spain he spends most of the year recording the behavior of all children in a big red book, while Piet (his moorish helper) stocks up on presents for next December 5th. After mid-November Sinterklaas en his helpers board a steamship for Amsterdam harbor. A parade through town is watched live on TV by the entire nation. This marks the beginning of St. Nicholas season.
From now on time and space merge as Sinterklaas and his helper are everywhere at once. At night they ride the Dutch rooftops, and Piet sees to it that the hay and carrot left for the horse in each little shoe is exchanged for a small gift or candy.
Sinterklaas is very busy in the days before Sinterklaas eve, and it is not only because of the shopping. Dutch tradition demands that all packages be camouflaged in some imaginative way and that each gift be accompanied by a fitting poem. This is the essence of Sinterklaas: Sheer fun when poking fun is not only permitted but expected between parents and children; between employers and employees etc. Whether they do or no longer believe in Sinterklaas’ existence, it is in fact this anonymity that keeps the tradition popular among all age groups.
After supper on Sinterklaas Eve (December 5th) the Dutch are at home, seated around the table filled with traditional sweets and bakery goods. A basket filled with packages stands close by. Have you ever seen Voortman’s spiced windmill cookies? This is the time to eat them.
Gifts are unwrapped and poems are read one at the time so that all may enjoy the originality and surprise. The emphasis is on giving rather than receiving. Thank you Sinterklaas!
For fun I will add a Taai Taai cookie recipe (literally this means chewy chewy):
TAAI TAAI cookies
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of liquid honey
1 cup of water
3 1/3 cups of flour
1 teaspoon of baking soda
pinch of salt
1 tablespoon of anise
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon of ground clove
Preparation: Preheat over to 325 degrees.
Bring sugar, honey and water to a boil. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. add remaining ingredients and mix well.
Spread the cookie dough and use a gingerbread man cutter to make dolls from the dough and place on a greaseproof paper lined baking tray. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown. Cool. Keeps well in an air tight container to prevent overdrying. Delicious or “lekker” in Dutch.
(Please adjust the amount of sugar if you prefer a less sweet cookie)
I hope you enjoyed my Sinterklaas blog post, at the same time I wish everybody a Happy Thanksgiving.