Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sinterklaas arrives to Amsterdam!

I was sitting in my living room on this nice and quiet Sunday morning, when I suddenly heard boat horns and music arriving from far. The entertaining sounds started approaching quickly, and I couldn't let my curiosity sleep and jumped out of the comfy couch to have a look out from the window. Loads of boats with people dancing on it were passing on the "Nieuwe Herengracht" canal next to my apartment, with excited kids and adults on the street hailing at them. On the boats (dancing) and in the streets (running, dancing and cycling), there were plenty of people with their faces painted in black and wearing colorfoul costumes who were distributing candies to the kids: these were Zwarte Pieten! Only then had I finally understood what was happening: "Sinterklaas is coming!", have I shouted in the living room. My partner gave a suprising glance at me: "Sinter who?" "Look at the Zwarte Pieten! Sinterklaas is coming!" My excitement wasn't convincing to him: "What Pitt?".
I remember celebrations of Saint-Nicholas when I was living in Belgium. As a kid, I loved the fact that we could eat loads of marzipan (I even thought we could only find marzipan at this time of the year, which fortunately isn't true), I never really believed in Saint-Nicholas (or in Santa Claus), but I still liked the celebrations (what kind of kid wouldn't like receiving gifts and candies?). Every year on 6 December, the Dutch and the Belgian celebrate Sinterklaas in honour of Saint-Nicholas (klaas is a nickname for Nicolaas), the patron saint of children, sailors, merchants, pawnbrokers and Amsterdam, which I honestly didn't know until I read it in the Lonely Planet Amsterdam. The white-bearded man dressed as a bishop arrives to Amsterdam every year in mid-November (I didn't know it would be today) by ship from "Spain" and enters the city on a horse to receive the keys of the city from the mayor (Mayor Cohen did it in front of the Scheepvaartmuseum today).
He is of course followed by his Zwarte Pieten who, apart from throwing candies to the kids are also carrying sacks to take the naughty ones away (which they of course never do during the parade). The idea is that well-behaved kids receive gifts in a shoe they've placed next to the chimney with a carrot for the patron's horse. One Zwarte Piet climbs down the chimney and puts the gift in the shoe, and I suppose takes the carrot away for the horse, since I cannot imagine the horse climbing down the chimney (as if I could imagine a man with a face painted in black doing the same!). The North American Santa Claus evolved from the Sinterklaas celebrations at the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam (today's New York).
I've seen Amsterdammers going crazy celebrating New Year and the Queen's Birthday on 30 April, and today the arrival of Sinterklaas to their city. I have been amazed again by their capacity of getting together and celebrate. Today's party goers were the kids, the young ones and old ones!
Photos taken on the Prins Hendrikkade, Amsterdam