Best Sinterklaas ever
St. Nicolas's Rod
As told by Kate van de Casteele to Ron Dudderie.
This is a short story about the lives of Martin and Kate, the main characters of the 'Carstairs Trilogy'. It consists of:
1. Best Sister Ever
2. An Audience With Carstairs
3. And The Winner Is
This story is set six years before the events in Best Sister Ever.
I moved to the UK when I was ten, with my parents. That's never easy. I had to leave my class mates in Leiden (a university town in Holland) behind, which sucks. And suddenly I had to speak English all day, which is okay but can get a bit tiresome. It's not as if you can say: 'Okay guys, my jaw hurts. How about you all humour ME for a change?'
I didn't care for the food much, either. And the weather was hardly an improvement. But the worst thing, the absolute worst thing was leaving behind my big brother, Martin. I didn't sleep much, the first few months. Still, we found a way to make it work. And we found reasons to visit each other, even if they were lame. Hey come on, we're family. We don't need a reason, do we?
Actually, we sort of did, because by that time Martin was married to Monique. She put up with me and I tolerated her. That's as close as we ever got. But he absolutely adored her, because ... Well, because he didn't know any better, I suppose. My brother never had the best of luck with women, so as soon as one came along that gave him the time of day, he fell for her. And that was Monique. The woman looked like a Praying Mantis with a blonde wig, but hey ... she made him happy. You're happy when you THINK you are, right?
For 2007, when I was eighteen, my excuse to visit was the arrival of St. Nicolas in The Netherlands. I suppose I ought to explain that. You know how you guys have Santa Claus? Well, the Dutch have Sinterklaas, also know as St. Nicolaas, or Nicolas in English. He's a bishop, he lives in Madrid (yes, the one in Spain) and once a year he travels from Madrid to The Netherlands by boat. Sinterklaas is accompanied by a lot of assistants, called 'Zwarte Piet' or Black Pete. Oh, this is not a religious thing. Not in the slightest! Sinterklaas does not carry a bible, he never prays and he is not about religious conversion. He just happens to be a bishop. We all need to eat, right?
This is going to get a LOT weirder, trust me.
So why does a bishop from Spain come to Holland? Why, to give gifts to the children! His birthday is on December 6th, so on December 5th he leaves presents for everyone (I don't get that part either), accompanied by little poems that make fun of your misdeeds or your bad fortune in the past year. He distributes them together with his assistants, as he rides a white steed over the rooftops.
There so much more weirdness to come, you have no idea.
Sinterklaas is an elderly white man with a silvery beard and a moustache. He is dressed like a bishop, which is to say he wears a red mitre with a golden cross, a red velvet cloak (also with cross, on the back) and a white robe with a purple stola. He wears white gloves and carries a staff or a rod. It's gold-plated and curves inwards at the top, like a question mark that's doing a forward summersault. Technically it's called a crosier. One of his Petes carries a big book of kids names, which also lists if they have behaved in the past year or not.
You think the weirdness is done? Oh, you're so sweet and innocent. Strap in, bucko.
Black Pete is black. As in: his skin is black. Sometimes brown, but usually pitch black. That's because he travels up and down the chimneys, to spy on kids and deliver presents. Meanwhile, Sinterklaas and his horse (called Amerigo) are waiting on the rooftops.
As you'll understand, a white man with a black assistant is a bit of an issue. Less so in 2007, but these days it's a proper shit storm each year. The Netherlands is a fairly diverse country and our immigrants from Surinam and the Dutch Antilles really don't care for this tradition. It doesn't help that, apart from the blackface, Black Pete is dressed like a Moor (which he is, traditionally; we have TWO explanations for his black skin), in a Renaissance outfit. He wears a cap with a feather, gold earrings and ... here it comes ... has big, red lips. Yup. Well, that's what you get with traditions that start in 1850. Recently, the United Nations called us out on it and said we ought to end this racist tradition. The committee on that topic was headed by a black, American woman. Oh, how we laughed. Yes, let's have Americans lecturing us about racism. How about we lodge a complaint with the UN about Thanksgiving? That's about successful repression of the native Americans, isn't it? Or how about we all shut the hell up about traditions of other countries and let them deal with it?
There are many Black Pete's and, like the Smurfs, they don't have proper names. There is a 'Hoofdpiet', a Lead Pete if you will, a 'Pakjespiet' (a packages Pete), a Horse Pete, in short a plethora of Petes. There's also a Navigation Pete and they should fire his ass, because every year when Sinterklaas arrives (which is always the first Saturday after November 11th) the sodding boat gets lost. And if it's not the boat, it's the book or the rod or the horse or the mitre. I sometimes think black people are mainly angry because we're accusing them of bad inventory control.
There's more weirdness. Lots more.
The arrival of Sinterklaas in The Netherlands is televised. Each year a different city plays host. When Leiden, where Martin and I grew up, was 'it', he took me to see it. Hundreds of children and their parents lined up along the canals of Leiden to see the boat come in. My parents were at work, but Martin and I were inseparable then (I was seven), so even though it rained for most of the day, he picked me up and put me on his shoulders. I recall singing my tiny little lungs out, even though the boat was nowhere in sight.
When it finally came (the fuckers got lost again) and Sint Nicolaas rode his horse through the streets of Leiden, the actor who played him noticed me and came over for a chat. He was preceded by a marching band, playing one of dozens of special Sinterklaas songs. All the others kids were jealous of me, as you can imagine.
"Hello there! I know you! Remind me, what's your name again?"
"Ah yes, Kate! Now I see. So, what would you like to get this year?" he asked, as he shook my hand with his gloved fingers. I remember a big golden ring with a purple jewel.
"A girlfriend for my brother!" I yelled.
Look, I had no idea we were on TV, okay? I didn't notice the camera crew and even if I had, I fervently believed this was St. Nicolas and he could work miracles. My brother really, really deserved a girlfriend.
"Is that your brother?" asked The Sint. (We have so many names for him, get used to it.) Martin couldn't possibly hide, because I was on his shoulders at the time. We were both soaking wet and surrounded by throngs of people.
The guy looked him over and said, with a smile:
"Well, he looks like a very, very good brother. I'm sure it will sort itself out soon enough. I'll get you something nice, don't worry. Bye Kate! Bye, Kate's brother!"
And off he rode, followed by a parade of Black Pete's who were throwing candy into the crowd, doing acrobatic stunts and climbing into lamp posts.
"Gee, thanks, Kate..." mumbled Martin. Everyone was looking at us. Poor guy.
That must have been in 1994 or thereabouts. I was seven and Martin was twenty-three. It was before he met Monique, or I'd have said: 'A DIFFERENT girlfriend for my brother!'
They still play that clip on occasion. Whenever they do a montage of what it means to be Dutch, you'll get the coronation of Queen Beatrix, the celebrations after the liberation of Nijmegen by Canadian forces, the winner of the most recent Eleven Cities skating tour, our victory over Germany in the 1988 European Soccer Championship and me, accidentally humiliating the man I love more than anyone or anything on this planet. I was only seven, but I still feel bad about it. Over 500.000 people saw it live. Those who missed it caught it on the eight o'clock news. We also have a tradition on New Year's Eve where a comedian reviews the year on TV. Millions of people watch that show. Guess what event was mentioned several times in it? I still cringe, I really do.
Anyway, in 2007 I came to visit Martin in Holland. Obviously I no longer believed in St. Nicolas, which meant I was now part of the conspiracy. It's such a wonderful tradition, it really is. No adult will EVER spoil it for a child. You can ask any police officer, teacher, bus driver or politician and they will not, under any circumstances, admit that it's a lie. You just don't do that. The entire country puts on a play for the kids, and once they figure it out they're told all the secrets and they play along. Isn't that marvellous? Sure, Americans have something vaguely similar with Santa Claus, but that character is based on the Sinterklaas tradition and it sometimes seems that only the Disney company still believes in him.
I liked being a part of it all and I liked being around my brother, so on a Friday, it must have been the 16th of November, I took an easyJet flight to Amsterdam and was picked up by him from Schiphol Airport. I don't fly easyJet nowadays but I've always been petite, so at least I could fit in the sodding seat with some room to spare.
.... There is more of this story ...