Amsterdam, the Arrival of St. Nicholas

This is an excerpt from a 2003 family letter.  Although not properly a Christmas Market, it fits here.

On Sunday Sinta Klaus (St. Nicholas) arrived in Amsterdam. Saint Nicholas is really from Asia Minor (today’s Turkey.)  Dutch people know this.  Dutch also know that most Americans believe Santa lives at the North Pole, so they seem amused that we came to Amsterdam to see Sinta Klaus.

Even though the Dutch know where St. Nicholas originally comes from, they tell their kids Sinta Klaus comes from Spain. The reason for Spain, most of the parents seem to think, is that Spain used to rule the Netherlands so Sinta comes from “headquarters.” Traditionally Dutch parents told their kids that Sinta took particularly bad boys and girls back with him to Spain.  This used to be an incentive for good behavior, but one modern grandparent told us his grandson is working hard to win his trip to Spain having been there on holiday and quite liking it.

Sinta arrives by boat from Spain on the third Sunday before his birthday (St. Nicholas Day is December 6.)  He arrives with his sidekick “Black Piet” who was traditionally dimwitted and did the heavy lifting. Black Piet is actually the one who gets to haul the selected “bad boys” off to Spain. Today’s Piet is kind of a Sinta’s elf.  He has also cloned himself. There are hundreds of Black Piets, generally white women in blackface (but you can’t hide the blue eyes) wearing black gloves.  They hand out cookies, candy and Sinta Klaus flags. Some kids are frightened of Piet but the smart ones catch on and try to get him to come over because he’s the one with the loot.

Black Piet is causing discomfort among the liberal Dutch. (Seeing so many people in blackface certainly startled me.) One person told me they were discussing turning him into “Green Piet.”

Sinta and the Piets have three weeks ’free reign to peek into chimneys and windows to check on kids’ behavior. The mayor gives Sinta Klaus the keys to the city to facilitate this. About twice a week between the arrival and St Nicholas day (a woman next to me said “Wednesdays and Saturdays” in her house) kids may find a chocolate coin wrapped in gold foil or some other small gift either in their shoe or by the fireplace. OR they may find a lump of coal as a warning. On the evening of December 5 Sinta Klaus makes his rounds and then, on his birthday, returns to Spain leaving Christmas free for other things, like celebrating the birth of Jesus.

Traditionally Sinta comes on a boat down the Amstel River and lands at “his” St. Nicholas Church. However, this year the canal system is disrupted by the construction of a subway line, which means that parts of some canals are drained for the construction. So the good Saint set up headquarters at the Maritime Museum.

The schedule has the Saint’s boat appear on the Amstel at 11 and arrive at the museum at 11:45.  After the ceremony with the mayor, he parades around the town for two hours arriving at the royal palace at 2.

We took a canal bus to the boat landing at the Maritime Museum, which was packed with kids. We arrived at the museum at around 11 and took a place along the rail looking out over the harbor. Already lots of kids and parents were standing under umbrellas. Some of the kids were dressed for the occasion. One little girl had a construction paper red bishop’s miter. At about 11: 15 the MC came out to warm up the crowd, and teach the kids the Sinta Klaus song. About a hundred Black Piets handed out little St. Nicholas flags and hands full of ginger cookies. By 11:45 the soggy kids were ready for Sint Nicholas. Several boats had entered the harbor, including tour boats, canal busses, a kayak, and a double ender with kids holding a big sign saying “We (heart) Sint.” But there was no hint of the Saint.  At noon there was still no Saint, and the MC was running out of material. “Let’s sing the Sinta Klaus song one more time.”

The Sint’s route had changed due to the subway construction.  He had to go through different canals than in normal years. His boat is an old steamboat that requires bridges to lift and the police had kept the wrong bridges clear of people. In order for the Saint to get from the Amstel to the Maritime museum the police had to clear several bridges lined with kids who had been standing in the rain for an hour to get a really good look. These were not happy campers. To complicate matters the Sinta Klaus parade had formed up ready to roll, complete with floats and bands, on one of the bridges that had to open. It took a while.

The little girl standing in front of me had just too much waiting and started to cry, she wasn’t the only one.  Finally, at 12:30, 45 minutes late, the whistle blew, the red lights came on, the crossing gates closed and the bridge opened. A police boat was followed by a beautiful wooden steamer with Sinta Klaus standing on the bow.  Three fireboats filled with Black Piets and a canal bus full of wrapped presents sailed past the landings. The MC took a deep breath and led the kids in one last round of the Sinta Klaus song as the Saint stepped off the boat to receive the key to the city.

The mayor, wisely, cut his speech short.  St. Nicholas mounted his white stallion and the parade began, led by a mounted police squad escorting an old horse drawn paddy wagon with two kids in prisoner stripes, the scapegoats headed for Spain. They looked pretty happy about it.

Now things got weird. Families at the boat landing wanted to get to the royal palace.  They took their kids, on the backs of bikes or in strollers, and rushed along the street parallel to the Sinta Klaus Parade, the main street of the red light district.  The parallel parade of innocents cruised through, oblivious to the goods displayed in nearby windows. (In Amsterdam prostitutes sit in windows wearing stuff from Victoria’s secret that’s two sizes too small.) The smell coming from Amsterdam’s famous coffee houses was enough to give me a contact high.


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