Monday, December 5, 2016


Amsterdam hosts the largest Saint Nicholas parade in the world. The white-bearded legend traditionally makes his spectacular entrance into the city by sailing down the Amstel River then trades his boat for his white horse Amerigo, and the parade continues through the streets. Although the feast of Saint Nicolas falls on 6 December, the evening of 5 December is the main gift-giving occasion during the holiday season in the Netherlands. Called 'sinterklaasavond' (Sinterklaas evening) or 'pakjesavond' (presents evening), Sint drops off a sack full of gifts on the doorstep before heading back to Spain. Following his late-night visit, much like at Christmas, everyone unwraps their presents from Sinterklaas and reads aloud the poems that have been written especially for each recipient. The author of these light-hearted poems remains anonymous.

Saint Nicholas has had close ties with Amsterdam since 343 AD. Legend has it that Sinterklaas originally came from Turkey to Amsterdam as St. Nicolaus, the Bishop of Mira. He is specifically described as a benefactor of young women. No one really knows why he then chose to live in Spain but historians point to the Spanish domination over the Netherlands in the past. His name appears on the oldest Greek list and on five other lists of participants in the Council of Nicaea and he is said to have physically attacked and beaten the major Arian bishop over the nature of the Trinity--and is often pictured as having a broken nose as a result.

The Christmas-like celebration on Dec. 5 has in recent years become part of the polarized discourse about race in The Netherlands. At the heart of the discussion is "Black Pete," Sinterklaas' helper--often the Saint's "enforcer" who punishes naughty children--who is often played by white people in blackface makeup and Afro wigs. Opponents see him as an outdated and offensive caricature that harks back to slavery, while the majority of Dutch people see Pete as a harmless children's character who has come to symbolize what they see as attacks on Dutch culture and traditions. Even the sacred United Nations has weighed in, with its Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination last year urging the Netherlands to "actively promote the elimination of those features of the character of Black Pete which reflect negative stereotypes and are experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery."

This has persisted in the country's public debate with the Black minority increasingly annoyed and the traditional Dutch surprisingly resistant to change. Some additions have been made with Zwarte Pieten evolving into a sort of sooty chimney-sweep.

Dutch Stamps:
 Dutch stamps

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