5th December 1999

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Getting to know the Dutch St. Nicholas

By Deloraine Brohier

December in my childhood was the best of all months. Having participated in the pleasure of Sinter Claas, Dutch style, 20 days later I celebrated Christmas in real British fashion with Santa Claus.

As Sinter Claas, Santa first appears early in December as a stately Continental Bishop - with robes of scarlet, heavily embroidered in gold thread - a mitre on his head splendid with jewels. Even his gloves sparkle with precious stones - and in his hand he carries a golden crosier. He is a far more majestic figure that the roly-poly, hearty, old man clothed in fur-tipped red coat and high boots. The family likeness is there just the same - both beam on the world, particularly the children and the long white beards flow showing them to be unmistakably of the same family line.

Most of you know him as a jolly old man coming down grimy chimneys into the bedrooms of sleeping children whose tiny socks have been hung up to receive the delectable presents he may bring for them on Christmas Eve.

San Nicholas, whose coming is looked forward to earlier in the season in the Netherlands, is rather different.

I was happy to join in this festive event with the people of Holland once. The streets as I saw them were decorated with hoops and bunches of brightly coloured jets.

Confectionery shops sold special cookies and sweets bearing the impress of Sinter Claas. Children, their eyes bright with anticipation told me that every night for a month before, they had placed by the fireplace a bundle of straw for the white steed of St. Nicholas. Each night after dinner, the children are marched into the kitchen and handed a little bundle of hay which they solemnly place in a line in front of the fireplace in their living room.

This is for the good Bishop's horse, a most fastidious animal, who has so delicate a stomach that he can only digest the hay offered by really good children and spurns that which has been placed by the unrepentant ones!

Every child in Holland makes it a point to be good prior to St. Nicholas' Day. When the old Bishop visits their land his attendant brings a big bag. All the naughty children, it is believed are put into the bag and taken to Spain. If they have been naughty but not so very bad, they are given a birth rod instead as a present.

The feast of St. Nicholas as essentially a feast of the home observed in the Netherlands, is on the eve of the festival when there is a kind of joyous excitement. Everybody is intent on some private and mysterious business - with much tying up of parcels in rolls of coloured paper and yards of ribbon.

After the solid Dutch evening meal on St. Nicholas' Eve the children put their shoes in a long, straight row in front of the bundle of hay each has offered the good Saint's horse. Gathering round with the adults, they sing the old and quaint folk songs to Saint Nicholas.

"Sinta Klas, good helligman, trebt je beste tabbered aan" etc., etc., which runs

'Santa Klass, a good holy man,

Put on your finest robe

And ride it into Amsterdam

From Amsterdam to Spain

Bring little apples from Orange

And little pears from a high tree.

Dear Santa Klass, our Godfather".

Most of the songs convey a warm invitation to the Saint to call at their house and give thanks in anticipation, for all the lovely gifts they were sure he was going to bring.

In the wake of the old tradition we learnt that the little children in Holland believe that is the night the holy man rides over the house-tops on a snow-white steed, accompanied by a little black servant called Peter. As he passes each chimney he throws in presents which pour down into the wooden shoes the children have left by the hearth.

With each present the recipient does not find a sentimental card on which is inscribed the prosaic statement ''With love from Uncle Kees'' or ''To a good girl from Aunt Beatrice'' as we do. Instead in Holland each parcel includes the most peculiar messages - often in rhyme, just to create laughter and leave everybody guessing who the donor is. Sometimes the guess is quite easy as on the occasion when a young lady received a box of very big handkerchiefs with a message that ran:- "Sniffing is horrid, believe me, dear. So handkerchiefs six you'll find in here''.

When the rhyme was read out everybody turned to look at a spinster aunt who was forever warning her nieces of the unpleasant appearance and behaviour of the girl who forgets to take her handkerchief when she goes out.

And so the simple fun goes on throughout the day which seems to pass all too quickly - nobody minding the noise and the children running riot over the house. A plentiful supply of endless good things to eat is had and if the children tuck in to a little more than is good for them, well that's tradition too.

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