While Americans are tucking into the last Thanksgiving leftovers and European towns are getting Christmas decorations out of storage, the Dutch claim the title for the early-bird Christmas.
The holiday spirit has been in full swing since the middle of last month, kicking off a three-week shopping and sugar spree up to the big day last weekend, Dec. 5, the feast of Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaus, as he’s known in the Netherlands.
Sinterklaus officially “arrives” in the country in mid-November, on a gift-filled boat from Spain accompanied by some 40 helpers.
It’s a fantasy event that keeps this nation of otherwise logical, low-key, no-nonsense pragmatists fixated on their televisions, where the “arrival” is transmitted live.
“Every town has its Saint Nicholas, except one or two spots that are largely Protestant,” said John Helsloot, a researcher at the Meertens Institute on Dutch culture in Amsterdam, explaining the phenomenon.
And if a town isn’t close to one of the country’s many waterways or canals, he comes by train or car, Helsloot said.
Two-thirds of Dutch families offer their children their Christmas gifts during this period, according to a study by the GFK market research firm, which showed less than half the nation got Christmas gifts at the time they’re generally offered elsewhere in Europe — on Dec. 24 or 25.
And for a people who tend to be thrifty and shun flaunting any wealth, the Dutch open their pocketbooks wide in the final week before Dec. 5. Yvonne Fernhout, spokeswoman for the Dutch Retailers Federation, said sales in the last week are expected to total 470 million euros (US$629 million) more than the average weekly retail sales, which generally total 1.5 billion euros.
For three weeks up to Dec. 5, children leave their slippers in front of the chimney — if there is one — each evening. In the Dutch twist on the Christmas ritual, Sinterklaus’ helper, Black Peter or Zwarte Piet, comes down the chimney to fill them with candies while Saint Nicholas waits on the rooftop with his white horse. “The children think that Saint Nicholas comes from Spain but he was actually born around 280 in Myra,” in Turkey, said Annemieke Langeveld, a member of a Dutch association that promotes the image of the fantasy Saint Nicholas, a testament to the tenacity of the tradition here. A Greek bishop, Saint Nicholas — who was also the model for the jovial, red-suited modern-day Santa Claus with his sleigh and reindeer — died on Dec. 6, 342 in Bari, southern Italy, she said.
“The passage towards the ‘Christmas concept of Saint Nicholas’ goes back to the 16th and 17th centuries,” Helsloot said. But unlike Santa, the Dutch Sinterklaus retained characteristics of the Greek bishop with his floor-length red cloak, miter and long white beard — a figure also found in Belgium, Germany and in eastern France.
He is less merry than the modern-day Santa, though his popular Black Peters — with their faces painted black, lips red and sporting gold hoop earrings — fill a similar role to Santa’s helper elves.
Helsloot says the Peter figure, outfitted in puffy bloomers and feathered caps, may hark back to “the black servant of an important white man,” but the famously tolerant Dutch have put a practical spin on the question of “why is Peter dark?”
“Some see racism and discrimination in the image, but most Dutch say that Black Peter is black because he came down the chimney,” Helsloot said.