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Saint Nicolas: the story

sinterklaas Bonaire

Copyright Susan Porter

It’s always the same. Around this time of year, the supermarket start filling with sweets, the television series begin and the Dutch children start counting days. And than the discussions start to fill all social media. Saint Nicolas: wonderful tradition or just plain racism? Or perhaps a bit of both?

Let’s first get back to the old legend. Nicolas of Myra lived in the 3rd or 4th century. He was probably born in Patara, a small city in what nowadays is called Turkey.  He was a pious child, and soon it became clear that he would serve the church. He became a priest at 19, and later was given the status of Bishop of Myra. Since he was of a wealthy decent, he had two secretaries in his service.
This didn’t mean his behaviour was all saintly, by the way. During the Councel of Nicaea, he became so enraged that he punched Arius in the face. He was thrown in jail, but set free by the virgin Mary.

According to the legend, Nicolas performed several miracles during his life. He calmed a storm that was almost sinking a boat, by mere prayer. During a terrible famine he resurrected three boys that were butchered and served by a local landlord. He multiplied bags of grain for the hungry to use, and he – being very rich – gave gold to a local man so he could provide his daughters with a dowry. According to legend, Nicolas didn’t hand it to the man, but rather threw it through the window and ran away.

Now the tradition: In the beginning of November, an elderly man, Saint Nicolas, will arrive per ship (because obviously, the Netherlands are to far to travel on horseback, especially for such an old man). Word goes he’s from Spain, but then: Dutch were never that good in geography. He will bring his white horse and his black servants. The old Nicolas songs say the servants are Moors, so they are probably from Myra as well: definitely darker skinned than the pale Dutchman, but not nessecary ‘as black as soot’, as a more recent song goes. So in short: old man with white beard (nobody ever talks about or even remembers his skin colour) loves children and, with the help of two dark skinned servants (called ‘Piet’), hands out presents and sweets. Since the Dutch windows are usually shut, it’s up to Piet and Piet to throw the presents down the chimneys. And of course, to take bad children out of their beds, put them in a canvas bag, and bring them back to Spain.

As a character, Saint Nicolas is old, wise, strict and perhaps even a little intimidating. Piet, on the contrary, is a fit young man, playful, fun, who can sing and dance. Piet is the one you want to hold hands with, dance around, sit on his lap. Piet is the one you want to be when you grow older. There’s a Piet that holds the horse, while others throw sweets at the kids and do cartwheels. When Nicolas meets the kids, one Piet assists him by reading from the Book – a register of good and bad kids. Occasionally, there also is the ‘dumb Piet’, who asks all the silly questions even the dumbest kid would know the answers to, and ‘clumsy Piet’, who trips over his own feet.

Naturally this leads to excitement and  anxiety amongst Dutch children. Will I get a present, or will they take me to Spain (which, by the way, for some weird reason is a bad thing)? Will I hear Saint Nicolas’ horse on the roof and see the Piets climb down the chimney? Or – for children in the Caribbean part of the Netherlands: How will the Piets be able to deliver presents; we don’t have a chimney? No kid however will ever ask himself why the Piets are black, or whether they are Saint Nicolas’ slaves. It’s only adults who do.

I fully understand that the history of slavery – appalling and dreadful as is was – is still a hot item in todays world. Living on Bonaire, the results of this terrible crime against humanity are still visible in daily life. However: on Bonaire, nobody seems to complain about the Nicolas festivities. On the contrary, we have a dark skinned Saint Nicolas, and the Piets are usually played by white skinned women, painted black. Where in the European Netherlands – where there never was any actual slave labour (just people getting rich with the trade) – every year people protest against Piet. It seems that people who actually have the right to complain, are more prone to see the festivities for what they are supposed to be: a reason to take a day off and have some family fun.

For people who still don’t understand, a short summary:
- Piet was a servant, not a slave – there wasn’t a large slave trade or African slaves in the 4th century
- Piet wasn’t black, but dark skinned – Arab rather than African – just like the bishop himself
- Piet wasn’t called Piet anyway
- Skin colour doesn’t really matter: both Piet and Nicolas can be white, black, red, yellow or purple. Most kids won’t notice the difference. Actually, the story goes that Piet is black because he climbs up and down the chimneys all the time. But if we can’t paint Piet black anymore, we need to write new songs.
- Sinterklaas is supposed to be about family fun, eating goodies, giving and receiving presents and teasing each other with our bad habits and character flaws. STOP TAKING IT SO BLOODY SERIOUS!!!!






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