December 16, 2019. As part of the upcoming Liberation 75 Celebrations, commemorating the liberation of The Netherlands in 1945, Dutch journalists have been going through their archives and featuring stories and film clips around this momentous period in the lives of the Dutch. One of the film clips uncovered shows how Canadian troops helped Sinterklaas visit Dutch children in 1944.
As you may be wondering who Sinterklaas is, and why this was an important event for Dutch children, Pieter has given some background information to put it in context. “If you are a kid in The Netherlands, my home country, Sinterklaas is a very important person …. whether you are naughty or nice. If you are nice, you get goodies. If you are naughty, there may be no goodies.” Hmmm ….. doesn’t this sound like someone we already know?
Pieter explains that “You may be surprised to learn that from our Sinterklaas comes the term Santa Claus as you know it here in Canada. In The Netherlands we celebrate Sinterklaas on the evening of December 5. In Dutch “Sint” means “Saint”, and “Klaas” is an abbreviation for Nicholas. So Sinterklaas in English is St. Nicholas.”
The Feast of St. Nicholas is celebrated on December 6, but Pieter explained that “We Dutch try to be first in many things, and so we celebrate a bit early. Our tradition is that Sinterklaas comes to Holland, in the third week of November, by boat from his home in Spain, and visits the Dutch towns and villages on his white horse Amerigo.”
No North Pole, but Spain, and a horse rather than a sleigh and reindeer. Interesting! Pieter notes that “It was the custom for Dutch children to put one shoe in front of the fireplace from the day Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands, sing Sinterklaas songs and go to bed. When I grew up in the late forties and early fifties, I remember putting my shoe out at night, filled with a carrot for his white horse, and going to bed, with the hope of finding something in my shoe from Sinterklaas. You never knew what to expect. If you had been naughty, Sinterklaas’s helpers might not put anything in your shoe.”
Pieter recollects what happened when he was a small child in the late 1940s. “Sinterklaas always carried a big red book with all the names of the children and knew if you behaved well or not. He sat down in the living room. I and my two brothers were called, one by one, to approach him and we were told all about our behaviour over the past year. It was amazing how much he knew about us! Luckily, we all got off without any punishment and didn’t get taken away to Spain. After he left, my father came in with a big sack of presents, which Sinterklaas had left in the hallway. So while Canadian children had to wait until December 25, we had our goodies already.”
According to tradition, Sinterklaas has its origin in the 4th century where Nicholas, at the age of 19, became the Greek Bishop of Myra in present day Turkey, famous for giving gifts to the poor. After his death on the 6th of December in the year 343, he became Saint Nicholas, a patron saint of children, merchants and sailors. The Netherlands is a maritime country seven times larger in size than Prince Edward Island, with many sailors and merchants involved in international trade from its earliest days. So his influence was especially strong in The Netherlands.
In the 17th century the Dutch settled in what is now New York and the Hudson valley, and they brought the tradition of Sinterklaas with them. In the English speaking world, Sinterklaas and Santa Claus merged with the British Father Christmas. When Henry Clement Moore wrote his poem “Twas the night before Christmas” in 1823, Sinterklaas took on a new identity as Santa Claus who is stationed on the North Pole, has elves to help him, and drives a team of reindeer. In The Netherlands, however, Sinterklaas never became Santa Claus.
During the years of Nazi occupation during WWII, and in a country where people were being starved to death, there were no visits from Sinterklaas… until December 5, 1944, when Canadian troops helped Sinterklaas visit Dutch children. Can you imagine the reaction of those children?
In the spirit of the season, we hope you enjoy this small film clip from the Canadian Army Film Unit, issue #51. (The film clip is from an article found on https://amersfoort.nieuws.nl/nieuws/17759/canadese-soldaten-hielpen-sinterklaas-in-1944/ for those who can read Dutch.)
Link to the film clip: https://drive.google.com/open?id=150xm9BfndYvEHHQUGXN-lK4-fnuesb5j
If anyone has a story or photo to share, please contact Pieter at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment on the blog.
© Daria Valkenburg