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05 December 2013

Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas)

It's 5 December, Saint Nicholas' eve! Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas is a Dutch character comparable to Santa Claus in English-speaking countries. Sinterklaas is his usual name. He is celebrated annually on 5 December or, in Belgium, on the morning of 6 December. The feast celebrates the name day of Saint Nicholas (280-342), patron saint of Amsterdam, children and sailors. He is the basis of the mythical holiday figure of Santa Claus in the United States.

Sinterklaas appeared - and appears - in many Dutch films. The comic horror film Sint (2010) presented him as a ghost who murders large numbers of people when his annual celebration night coincides with a full moon.

St Nicolas
French postcard by Fauvette, no. 1283. Reprint by Advertising Post, Amsterdam, no. 58.

Mischievous Helpers With Black Faces


Sinterklaas or in English Saint Nicholas is a traditional Winter holiday figure in the Netherlands, Belgium, Aruba, Suriname and Netherlands Antilles. He is also celebrated in the traditionally Germanic parts of France (Nord-Pas de Calais, Alsace, Lorraine), as well as in Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and in the town of Trieste and in Eastern Friuli in Italy. Additionally, many Roman Catholics of Alsatian and Lotharingian descent in Cincinnati, Ohio, celebrate 'Saint Nicholas Day' on the morning of 6 December.

In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas' Eve (5 December) is the chief occasion for gift-giving during the Christmas season. The evening is called sinterklaasavond or pakjesavond (presents evening). In the Netherlands, most children receive their presents on this evening. For Belgian and some Dutch children it is customary to put their shoe in front of the fireplace on the evening of 5 December, then go to bed, and find the presents around the shoes on the morning of the 6th.

Saint Nicholas was a bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey. In the 11th century, the saint's bones were taken and moved to southern Italy, an area then ruled by Spain, and relics and his fame spread throughout Europe. The Western Christian Church made his name day a Church holiday. In the north of France, he became the patron saint of school children, then mostly in church schools.

The folk feast arose during the Middle Ages. Sinterklaas is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colourful Moorish dresses, dating back two centuries. These helpers are called Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes). During the Middle-ages Zwarte Piet was a name for the devil. Having triumphed over evil, it was said that on Saint Nicholas eve the devil was shackled and made his slave. Although the character of Black Pete later came to acquire racial connotations, his origins were in the devil figure.

In medieval times, the feast was both an occasion to help the poor, by putting money in their shoes (which evolved into putting presents in children's shoes) and a wild feast, similar to Carnival, that often led to costumes, a 'topsy-turvy' overturning of daily roles, and mass public drunkenness.

In the nineteenth century, the saint became more secularized. Author Jan Schenkman then introduced the images of Sinterklaas' delivering presents by the chimney, riding over the roofs of houses on a gray horse, and arriving from Spain by steamboat, then an exciting modern invention. His ideas were incorporated by many across the Netherlands in their personal and communal celebrations. In late 20th and 21st century celebrations, numerous people dress as Zwarte Pieten in various cities across the Netherlands. There's a debate going on about the racist undertones of Zwarte Piet.

(And if you're interested in our opinion: we like a good party - but a party for all, so we think Zwarte Piet deserves a complete make-over so he will be really ready for the modern kids of the 21th Century.)

Sinterklaas
Austrian postcard by Verlag G. Rüger & Co., Wien, 1901, no. 612. Sent by mail in 1902. Reprint by Sint Nicolaas Museum (1998). This card was a gift from Jan.

Poster of Sint (2010). Design by BLT & Associates with Michael v Randeraat/Locust Entertainment. Source: jpekker.nl.

You've Got to Believe [in Sinterklaas]
Sinterklaas made a surprise visit at the Canal Parade during the Gay Pride of 2008.

A Murdering Ghost


Sinterklaas appeared with his Zwarte Pieten in many Dutch films. His first film appearance was probably in Makkers staakt uw wil geraas/That Joyous Eve (Fons Rademakers, 1960) starring Ellen Vogel and  Yoka Beretty. This is a tragi-comedy about the preparations for the Saint Nicholas celebration in three torn apart families in Amsterdam.

One family has always celebrated the evening, but now their rebellious 17-year-old son wants his own life. In the second family, a husband is more concerned about his secret love life than about his wife and son. The third family has already split, as both have made the decision to live apart. Still there are doubts about their relationship. The film was awarded a Silver Bear at 1961 Berlin Film Festival and is now seen as a classic in the Netherlands.

After this prestigious debut Sinterklaas had a long hiatus in his film career, although he could be seen yearly on the children news on TV. He returned on the screen in the children films Sinterklaas en het gevaar in de vallei/Saint Nicholas and the Danger in the Valley (Martijn van Nellestijn, 2003) with Nico Eickhoff as Sinterklaas, and Sinterklaas en het geheim van de Robijn/Saint Nicholas and the Secret of the Ruby (Martijn van Nellestijn, 2004), in which Sinterklaas was played by Robert-Jan Wik.

A surprise hit was Het paard van Sinterklaas/Winky's Horse (Mischa Kamp, 2005). This excellent children’s film received a Golden Film for 100,000 visitors. The story is about a six year old girl, Winky (Ebbie Tam), who is passionate about a horse (Saartje) who dies of an illness. Then subsequently it is shown how the little girl believes in Sinterklaas (Jan Decleir) and Zwarte Piet and learns that they give presents to all the children. So she decides to ask for a horse of her own.

Two years later followed the sequel Waar is het Paard van Sinterklaas?/Where Is Winky's Horse? (Mischa Kamp, 2007). This film also received the Golden Film after it had sold 100,000 cinema tickets.

Of course many other Sinterklaas films were produced. The romantic comedy Alles is liefde/Love is All (Joram Lürsen, 2007) starring Carice van Houten and Daan Schuurmans starts with the arrival of Sinterklaas and ends on Saint Nicholas' eve. It was another smash hit.

Sinterklaas en het Uur van de Waarheid/Saint Nicholas and the Hour of Truth (2007, Martijn van Nellestijn) had some well-known Dutch actors as Nelly Frijda and Frederik de Groot in the cast. It was followed by such sequels as Sinterklaas en het Pakjes Mysterie/Saint Nicholas and the Presents Mystery (Martijn van Nellestijn, 2010) with popular Dutch singers as Frans Bauer and Gerard Joling in the cast.

Completely different is Sint/Saint (Dick Maas, 2010) which portrays Sinterklaas (Huub Stapel) as a ghost who murders large numbers of people when his annual celebration night coincides with a full moon. While children are not permitted to see the film, parental concern arose over the film's poster, seen in the streets and in cinema lobbies. It shows Sinterklaas with a mutilated face and a malevolent look.

Some people, including film director Johan Nijenhuis, were concerned that this could be confusing and frightening for little children that still believe in Sinterklaas. A legal complaint was filed in October 2010, requesting the removal of all posters. In the subsequent court case, director Dick Maas argued that if parents could make their children believe that Sinterklaas existed they could also inform their children that the man on the poster was not the real Sinterklaas. The court ruled in favour of Maas, noting that the mutilated face was not visible enough on the poster, and rejected the complaint.

A year later, Johan Nijenhuis directed a Sinterklaas film himself: Bennie Stout/Bennie Brat (2011), featuring Koen Dobbelaer. It centres on the legend that Saint Nicolas takes the naughty children on his ship to Spain. Bennie Stout wants to be a naughty kid on purpose so he can visit his dad (Koert-Jan de Bruijn) in Spain.

This year there was two new children films featuring the holy man, Sinterklaas en de Pepernoten Chaos (Martijn van Nellestijn, 2013) with Wim Rijken as Sinterklaas, and De Club van Sinterklaas & De Pietenschool (Melcher Hillmann, 2013) with Wilbert Gieske as Sinterklaas. The latter was the sequel to De Club van Sinterklaas & Het Geheim van de Speelgoeddokter (Pieter Walther de Boer, 2012).

The film career of Sint Nicholas will be continued...


Trailer of Waar is het paard van Sinterklaas/Where is Winky's Horse (2007). Source: nff (YouTube).


Trailer of Alles is liefde/Love is All (2007). Source: HowlingWilderness11 (YouTube).


Trailer of Sint/Saint (2010). Source: Hollywoodstreams (YouTube).


English trailer for Bennie Stout/Bennie Brat (2011). Source: Danielle Raaphorst (YouTube).

Sources: Wikipedia and IMDb.

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