Christmas in Denmark is refreshingly pagan. That is what struck me the first time we celebrated Christmas here. Food, gifts and having fun with family and friends.
In the Netherlands we have a strict division of labour. Though the feasts are both in December, they are widely different: Christmas is about religion, fine food and, perhaps, merriment (as in 'classy' fun). Whereas gifts and boisterous fun is the realm of Sinterklaas.
Sinterklaas is both the familiar name for Saint Nicholas and the festivity itself. On the eve of 5 December, the Dutch exchange gifts. The idea is that you do not know who has given you the gift, and often there's a poem attached that is supposed to be funny – sometimes to, and beyond, the pain threshold. It can also be wrapped up inside something funny - the so-called 'surprise'. Thus hours of work disappear into crafting a container for a small gift. Grown-ups poke fun at each other that way, but children get 'real' gifts if they are still considered believers. Believers in the Sinterklaas story, that is. Here comes the simple version.
The story about Sinterklaas is that he lives in Madrid and travels yearly to the Netherlands on a boat filled with gifts for children who have been good. On the evening of 5 December, Sinterklaas rides out on his white horse on the Dutch roofs, delivering the gifts through the chimneys. His helper, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), does the chimney bit. Children who have been naughty get no gifts but a bag of salt. If they are lucky, that is. Zwarte Piet's other task is doling out corporal punishment, or, worst of the worst, abducting the rascals in a burlap sack and taking them to Spain.
Through the years, the division of labour between Sinterklaas and Christmas has become blurred. As religion has become less prominent in Dutch society, many people tend to give gifts at Christmas, too. Or they have stopped celebrating Sinterklaas altogether and do gift-giving the American Way, at Christmas. Still, many people have a bad conscience about the wealth of gifts and the tables filled with food and wines – all in sharp contrast to that babe in the manger. Not to speak of the rest of the world that is suffering hardship and hunger.
Alongside this process, the Sinterklaas festivities and the accompanying story have changed. Corporal punishment has gone out of fashion, and it is no longer a threat but rather a treat to go to Spain. Also, Zwarte Piet is not alone anymore, he has gotten more and more assistants and has gotten more light-skinned over the years. Despite all that, Zwarte Piet himself has become a source of controversy because quite a number of Dutch consider his figure as a symbol of slavery, confirming all prejudices about blacks – so not a festive figure at all. Other Dutch people though fiercely cling to the 'black' in Zwarte Piet, so much so that he now stands for an expression of real Dutchness. Which has led me to the conclusion that it takes roughly 150 years to integrate in the Netherlands if you are black.
Some sort of a Sinterklaas will survive in Holland, I think. If not, we have to console ourselves with the thought that his descendant, Santaclaus, is gaining world domination – also in Denmark.