On a Sunday morning in November I stood on the Magere Brug in Amsterdam, surrounded by the under-tens, waiting for the Sint to roll up on his steamboat. The weather was throwing everything at us: showers, the occasional icy blast and an even more occasional burst of sunshine. The Sint probably wished he’d stayed in Spain, where he spends most of his year, but needs must – he had children waiting for him. They jumped up and down, shouted, screeched and sang – maybe he’ll come if we sing, they told each other. There were more zwarte Pieten (literally black Petes) than you could shake a stick at, feathers on caps blowing in the wind, and a couple of bishop’s mitres glowing red against the dark clouds. One little girl gripped her golden curled crosier tightly as she leant her chin on the railing – when would he come? Parents mumbled that the Sint only had one job to do all year and he was still late, and meanwhile stuffed sandwiches in mouths, rammed hats on heads and wiped running noses. ‘I want to go hooooome’, wailed a little ballerina, gripping her mum’s jacket. Another declared that the Sint was a crazy old man and her dad said hastily ‘but I think you mean nice crazy, not stupid crazy’, to clarify, just in case anyone was wondering.
And finally, as everyone was getting a bit tetchy, there was music and a great plume of smoke in the distance. ‘Sinterklaas, Sinterklaas, Sinterklaas’… a wall of sound splayed out from the bridge towards the locks. And the boat tooted back. There he was, white locks flowing, papal gown and white bishop’s alb rippling, and gloved hand waving. The cold and waiting were forgotten – Sinterklaas was coming. ‘Oh that’s cool’, laughed a woman behind me, and then clapped her hand over her mouth in embarrassment. It was cool though.
Surrounded by his helpers, the knicker-bockered zwarte Pieten, the Sint made his way to dry land to swop his boat for his trusted white-grey steed, Amerigo. Kids hung over the barricades, bags in hand, waiting for traditional sweets. ‘Is that for pepernoten?’ I asked the young lad next to me, who was brandishing a bag that could carry a week’s worth of groceries. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘and I want it full up’.
The zwarte Pieten back flipped, pogo jumped and careered down the street, doling out sweets and mandarins from burlap sacks. None of the kids seemed to be worried about being bundled into the sack and taken back to Spain – but then that only happens to the naughty children.
The Piets banged drums and threw flour, pushed and shoved, created laughter and excitement. Sinterklaas bought up a stately rear. There were no chuckling ‘ho, ho, ho’s’ – no great sack of presents, no ample girth – Sinterklaas is a saint – more regal than jolly. Amerigo trotted back and forth while the Sint reached out and shook hands and smiled.
I could no longer feel my fingers. The Sint was headed for a big party on the Dam, and then his real work would start, distributing all the presents he’d bought with him from Spain for pakjes avond on December 5th. I however had had enough cool and headed off in search of hot chocolate laced with a little something. My present to myself.
Happy Christmas everyone!