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By Bonnie Klap.

Granted, each country has its own peculiar customs. For example,  the Halloween-parties in the US comes to mind, with its skeletons and pumpkins and ‘trick-or-treat’- traditions. Strange as that may seem, in my opinion, placing a shoe, filled with a carrot and some water and hay ( for the horse) next to the fireplace at night, in eager anticipation of finding  a gift in that very same shoe  the next morning is a lot odder! This brings me to the Dutch tradition of the annual Sinterklaas –festivities. You might be under the impression that this is primarily a children’s feast, but a  surprisingly large number of Dutch  people –children and adults alike  – enjoy celebrating  Sinterklaas.

Interestingly, hundreds of years ago Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas as he actually was called, really did exist! He was a Greek bisshop in the town of Myra, which is located in present-day Turkey. The Saint-Nicholas feast used to be an occasion to help the poor and needy by putting money in their shoes, a custom, that has  evolved into putting presents in the shoes of children. Sinterklaas rides a white horse ( ‘a gray’), carries a ceremonial gold shepherd’s staff and is accompanied by one or more “Zwarte Pieten,” ( Black Peters).  The Black Peters, who are dressed up in colorful costumes resembling 17th century pages, provide a comical note and throw handsful of gingernuts to the children.

Each year Sinterklaas travels by ‘steamship’ ( supposedly loaded with children’s gifts) to Holland. The tradition of travelling by ship can be traced back to the days that St. Nicholas was a famous patron of the sailors. Of late, however, dark clouds have gathered above Sinterklaas, as can be read in the Dutch newspapers. Not only will the continuing economic woes undoubtedly impact the sales of Sinterklaas-gifts and therefore make for more ‘empty children’s shoes” as a journalist gloomily remarked, but more troublesome, the ‘Zwarte Pieten,” themselves have come under attack, as this tradition is viewed by some as a throwback to slavery. The issue has initiated a lively discussion between passionate proponents and opponents of Zwarte Piet  on the internet as well as ample attention for the subject in the press.  It will be interesting to see how this thorny matter plays out.   

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