Reflecting on Sinterklaas and Zwart Piet
On Light and Dark
Growing up in the Netherlands December 5th was the highlight of the dark days of December. We did not have Santa Claus coming for Christmas, we would have cozy family dinners instead.
The promise of Sinterklaas coming would fill my heart with anticipation. He usually arrived on a steamer filled with presents in the harbour about two weeks ahead of time. Then he would parade through towns seated on his tall and beautiful white horse surrounded by Zwarte Pieten giving out pepernoten (spiced little hard cookies) and candy.
Sinterklaas would visit my school too and bring his big red book to see if we had all been good and to write down our wishes. We would sing songs and assure him we’d been good children.
At home we would put out our shoes by the hearth and sing fervently each evening before bedtime hoping he would drop something through the chimney during the night.
When December 5th finally arrived -which seemed like an eternity- we would gather at night at my grandparents place and all my aunts and uncles and cousins would gather. We would sing songs and Sinterklaas bringing along one Zwarte Piet would usually make another appearance. Again he’d bring his book and check us all. Zwarte Piet would have his big canvas bag ready for any ‘stoute kinderen’ (naughty children) to take back on the boat to Spain.
Thankfully nobody was ever taken and instead more pepernoten and candy would appear as well as huge bags filled with presents upon their leaving. The presents would all have a handwritten poem on it, written personally by Sint. It would reflect on some part in the receivers life or on the gift. Some poems would be 4 lines, others would be pages long. Now, 40 plus years later I still bring in Dutch pepernoten and presents with poems still arrive.
While sipping on some tea and a candle lit, I reflect on the light and dark that Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet represent.
He may have ridden a white horse at the time, though more likely he’d walk around and built a following perhaps in the same way Jesus did 300 years earlier. Some of these followers became his disciples or helpers, which are now called Zwarte Pieten.
As a child I always assumed Zwarte Piet, which literally translates as Black Peter, was black because of the smudges and soot as he went through the dark and narrow chimneys to deliver us all presents. Now there’s a debate whether or not there was a racial aspect to this. You may research and choose to think as you wish.
I’m interested in the symbolic meaning though, rather than the literal meaning. Which just helps to create a context.
Saint Nicolas with his white beard and white horse obviously represents the light. He is the lighter of the flame of hope and anticipation in a child’s heart, at least he was in mine. Zwarte Piet brings the reflection of the dark and what that represents, the threat of being out in a jute bag and brought to Spain, a country far away from the cozy home and family would fill me with dread and pushed me to behave so that I would not be chosen to go to ‘dark place far away down South’ - by some referred to as ‘hell’.
Yet Zwarte Piet is the one who is willing to descend, in the dark of night, through the narrow, dirty and dark chimney, to bring us candy and gifts in our shoes. How does one rhyme this with the same person filling you with dread?
Ah, the gifts of the Dark, the willingness to go through the dark, uncomfortable places so we may receive the gifts of the Light.
There is no light without the dark
Both encompass everything
The dark swallows the colours of the light
The light radiates and shines the colours of the light
Both contain the whole spectrum
I shall continue to sit with both as we move through these dark days
May we all receive gifts from both ❤️