In early December, when Americans are busy with Christmas shopping and baking, the Dutch are having fun with their families and neighbors.
On Dec. 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day, a red-caped bishop with a long white beard called Sinterklaas brings chocolate and presents to good little boys and girls. During the night, he rides through the air on a white horse, dropping gifts down the chimneys.
Schenectady residents Anneke Bull and Jenny Overeynder grew up in the Netherlands, and both women came to this country when they were in their 20s. Now, as grandmothers, they share their Dutch stories and traditions with their families.
When she was a girl, Bull would sing St. Nicholas songs as she waited for Sinterklass and his sidekick, Zwarte Piet, to bang on the front door of their house. According to legend, Zwarte Piet, or “Black Pete,” was a Moorish page from 17th century Spain, so his face is black and he wears the colorful costume of a royal court.
As he comes through the door, Piet throws onto the floor some kruidnoten — tiny, round, ginger-flavored cookies wrapped in paper.
The adults would always act surprised to see Sinterklaas and Piet, Bull says, even though they knew it was their neighbors or relatives dressed in costumes.
Bull remembers sitting on Sinterklaas’ lap, listening to the annual discussion about her behavior.
“Are we taking her?” Piet would ask Sinterklaas.
“No, no, you can’t have her,” Bull’s father would say.
“If you were naughty, you would go back to Spain with St. Nicholas,” she says, explaining how Sinterklass lives in Spain because that country once ruled the Netherlands.
Dutch song featured in holiday classic
Remember the little Dutch girl in the 1934 movie "Miracle on 34th Street"?
When she sees Santa Claus, played by Edmund Gwenn, in Macy's department store, she's shy and frightened.
But when Kris Kringle speaks to her in Dutch, the girl's face lights up. She sits on his lap and the two of them sing the traditional St. Nicholas song, "Sinterklaas Kapoentje."
If you go to YouTube and put in the words "Dutch girl in Miracle on 34th Street," you can see this touching scene from the classic holiday film and hear the song.
If you were good, “out of a big burlap bag would come the presents,” she says.
“The night before, you set up your shoes before the fireplace,” says Overeynder, recalling her childhood in the Netherlands.
“St. Nicholas is more imposing than Santa. He’s a bishop and he has a big red book,” she says.
While she was asleep, Sinterklaas would fill Overeynder’s shoes with goodies.
Traditional treats include chocolate coins, marzipan and animals or figures made of sugar.
Children also receive a piece of chocolate shaped like the first letter of their name.
Dutch adults look forward to mulled wine, also called bishop’s wine, and a pastry filled with sweet almond paste called banketstaaf, which is sometimes shaped like the first letter of the family’s last name.
Every year, Overeynder’s three daughters and six grandchildren travel to Schenectady on a weekend that’s close to Dec. 5.
“They all love to come for St. Nicholas,” she says. “The grandchildren really love the cookies, the chocolate letters. I buy them on the Internet or I schlep them back from Holland.”
Her late husband, who was also Dutch, worked as a telecommunications manager for General Electric in Schenectady and for Xerox in Rochester. When they lived in Rochester, their St. Nicholas celebrations with Dutch friends always included a costumed Sinterklaas.
Bull’s husband, the late George Bull, was an executive at General Electric. Bull has a son, a daughter and a grandson, also named George, who was born in July.
Bull and Overeynder agree that one of the best parts of their Dutch holiday is the custom of writing a humorous or heart-warming poem to go with one’s present.
The little poem often gently pokes fun at the recipient, and the gifts are imaginatively disguised and hidden in the house.
“When my family and I celebrate here, the poems are required,” says Overeynder. “The poem is the fun, teasing the recipient. You become very inventive.”
It could also be a way to thank someone, Bull says.
For example, if your neighbor gave you homegrown vegetables all summer, you might write a silly poem about her garden and give her a tiny box of seeds hidden in a huge box.
“It’s the Sinterklass spirit. It’s not the value of the presents. It’s the emotional value. That’s what’s important. It’s the company, it’s the laughter,” Bull says.
In the Netherlands, people of all different faiths enjoy St. Nicholas in their homes, schools and offices.
“Everyone celebrates,” says Bull. “Although he comes in the garb of a bishop, he has no religious significance.”
In recent years, she says, there have been concerns that Sinterklaas is being replaced by Santa Claus, who actually was modeled after the Dutch bishop, and that more Dutch are putting their presents under their Christmas tree instead of exchanging them on Dec. 5 and 6.
“Our culture, tradition in Europe is falling away,” Bull says. “The way that St. Nicholas is celebrated in the Netherlands is truly unique. This is a celebration that goes back to the Middle Ages.”
Having St. Nicholas Day early in December “separates present-giving from the Christmas part. That leaves Christmas free for a different celebration,” Overeynder says.
“No one thinks of putting up the Christmas tree before Sinterklass comes,” says Bull. “Christmas is a religious celebration. People go to church.”