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Sinterklaas on December 6: A time-honored tradition

This festive occasion of Sinterklaas, deeply rooted in tradition and folklore, brings families and communities together as they commemorate the arrival of Sinterklaas and his mischievous companions. But what are the origins of Sinterklaas? How do Belgians celebrate this unique and cherished event on December 6th? And why is it tainted with controversy?

The origins of Sinterklaas

Sinterklaas, also known as Saint Nicholas, traces its origins back to the legend of Saint Nicholas, a Christian bishop known for his generosity and kindness. The story goes that Saint Nicholas, born in the 3rd century in Patara, a city in what is now Turkey, became the patron saint of children and sailors due to his legendary acts of benevolence.

The modern representation of Sinterklaas, however, is heavily influenced by Dutch traditions. Sinterklaas is depicted as a tall, stately figure with a long white beard, dressed in a red bishop’s robe and mitre, carrying a staff. He is said to arrive in Belgium from his residence in Spain on a steamboat accompanied by his helpers, the mischievous Black Peters or Zwarte Pieten.

Sinterklaas in Belgium

Apparently, hundreds of Zwarte Piets live with Sinterklaas in his castle in Spain and prepare gifts for all children who have been good. When in Belgium, the Zwarte Pieten deliver the right presents to children who have been good throughout the year according to Sinterklaas’ Book, in which stories about all children are collected.

Sinterklaas arrives and treats are eaten

The festive season kicks off in Belgium when Sinterklaas arrives in the country. Typically, this event takes place in late November, and the arrival is celebrated with parades, music, and lively processions through the streets. Sinterklaas, seated on a majestic white horse, leads the parade, waving to the crowds of excited children who eagerly await his arrival.

As part of the celebration, Belgians indulge in various traditional treats associated with Sinterklaas. Speculaas, a spiced biscuit shaped in the likeness of the saint, is a popular delicacy during this time. Additionally, children receive chocolate letters, marzipan figures, and pepernoten (small, spiced cookies) in their shoes, which are traditionally left out on the night of December 5th.

Speculaas biscuits
Speculaas biscuits

Gift-giving and surprises

Sinterklaas is synonymous with gift-giving, and December 6th marks the day when children eagerly unwrap their presents. To add an element of surprise and anticipation, gifts are often accompanied by clever poems that may gently tease the recipient. The element of mystery and creativity in gift-giving adds to the charm of the celebration. Families gather for festive meals, and communities organize events such as Sinterklaas markets and fairs.

It’s also a time of discontent!

All is not always well on December 6 though. The character of Zwarte Piet is a controversial figure associated with these Sinterklaas celebrations. The reason is that Zwarte Piet is traditionally portrayed in blackface with exaggerated features, curly hair, and colorful Renaissance-style clothing. This leads to concerns about racial stereotyping and the perpetuation of offensive caricatures. Critics argue that the character reflects racist imagery, drawing on historical associations with negative depictions of people of African descent. The use of blackface, in particular, is a practice that has long been criticized for its racist origins and reinforcement of racial stereotypes.

Zwarte Pieten

Furthermore, opponents argue that the tradition contributes to the marginalization and dehumanization of Black individuals by perpetuating offensive imagery. Advocates for change call for the elimination of blackface and the adoption of alternative representations of Sinterklaas’s helpers that are more culturally sensitive.

Others, however, resist change, viewing Zwarte Piet as an integral part of their cultural heritage and expressing concern about the erosion of tradition.

Not surprisingly, the controversy has led to divided reactions. Some communities and organizations have modified the appearance of Zwarte Piet or introduced alternative versions of the character to make the celebration more inclusive. Others have refused to budge and have continued to use blackface characters.

The debate looks likely to continue to be a complex and sensitive issue within Belgian society. There was even a suggestion (quashed at the last minute) to turn the Sint from a white guy into a black woman!

In the meantime, Happy Sinterklaas!

9 thoughts on “Sinterklaas on December 6: A time-honored tradition”

    1. You’re right Rosaliene, change does not happen overnight. It’s interesting to note the political divide here on this matter too, with the far right (white male dominated) Flemish party quick to cry “woke” at the idea of removing the blackness from Zwarte Piet.

    1. Yes, but I don’t think the kids end up getting more presents, they are just distributed between two events. In our family the children could have one present each at Sinterklaas and the rest on Christmas Day.

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