Few people know it, but there are in fact not one, but two kind grandfatherly saints with a taste for red costumes that roam during the month of December. Few people outside the Netherlands, that is. For most families in Holland, last night, the 5th of December, was a night of giving and taking. Giving presents, and poking fun at each other.
Sinterklaas was originally a bishop from the Russian town of Dom Myra. He was prone to burglary but not theft, though, since he broke in and entered to deliver presents to the poor children of the town. After his death he was declared a saint by the Catholic Church. He was then reincarnated as the lead character of the myth of Sinterklaas, and this changed his life.
He lives in Spain, and owns a large house, a striking white horse, and a colourful steam boat. His servants are many, and they are black. Called Zwarte Piet (or Black Pete), they spend all year either running errands for the Sint, or spying on children in Holland to check on their behaviour. Good children receive goodies, bad children get their bottoms whacked. No, really. This is a far more Calvinistic saint than Chris Kringle, with no fear of physical punishment. What's more, he has also been known to take the exceptionally bad amongst the children back to Spain with him, in the same bag that brought the presents to Holland. Yes, on the big colourful boat.
When children grow older, they find out that the Goed Heilig Man Sinterklaas is actually a joint operation undertaken by their parents. The fact that the loud knock on the door on the eve of the 5th is always preceded by dad or some uncle leaving for a vague reason eventually has its effect on the charade. After the reality shock, the myth is continued anyway in most cases, because the fun is in the giving and taking. The giving part is self-explanatory, but maybe I should explain the taking part. 'Taking the p**s' at each other is a traditional thing, done in the poems that accompany each present. The habit started because the Sint himself would read aloud the little sins of the past year to the trembling kid in question, and then decide if all sins could be forgiven or if kidnapping to Spain was in order. After everyone in the family reaches maturity, the role of prosecutor is taken over by the giver of the present, merrily heckling a bittersweetly smiling cousin until the torment is over and the unwrapping begins.
Today, the original Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas is under heavy attack from the more globally accepted Santa Claus, and the reason they blend with each other is obvious, just by looking at their names. The two mythical figures have been spotted battling it out nightly on snow-laden rooftops, smashing each others' presents in department stores and running contests between the horse and the reindeer. However, though commerce seems to prefer the rotund, jovial and red-cheeked Santa Claus, over the tall, reverend and white-gloved Sinterklaas, both represent more or less the same principle, and really the nature of the family in question determines which one has right of way.