Last night I was able to ask a local about the racially insensitive ‘helpers’ that St. Nic brings with him to Amsterdam every year. She agreed that St. Nic surrounded by black men in pantaloons was very strange. She further explained that they used to be St. Nic’s ‘helpers’ but not by choice…oh like slaves! Yes, she said. But in this progressive and present age they choose to be his friends and helpers. The Dutch suggest taking the passed out candy without contemplating the ‘why’. She seemed slightly embarrassed so I confessed that Santa also violates some hefty labor laws. He imprisons thousands of elves and forces them to work ‘cheerfully’ 364 days a year for HUNDREDS of years! Locking them in an impenetrable (and invisible) fortress seems a tad insane. At least Sinterklaas lets his slaves accompany him to Amsterdam once a year.
My friend Liz from Denver reminded me of the following short story that explains the Dutch holiday by David Sedaris. Please read…you won’t be disappointed.
In France and Germany, gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve, while in Holland the children receive presents on December 5, in celebration of Saint Nicholas Day. It sounded sort of quaint until I spoke to a man named Oscar, who filled me in on a few of the details as we walked from my hotel to the Amsterdam train station.
Unlike the jolly, obese American Santa, Saint Nicholas is painfully thin and dresses not unlike the pope, topping his robes with a tall hat resembling an embroidered tea cozy. The outfit, I was told, is a carryover from his former career, when he served as a bishop in Turkey.
One doesn’t want to be too much of a cultural chauvinist, but this seemed completely wrong to me. For starters, Santa didn’t use to do anything. He’s not retired, and, more important, he has nothing to do with Turkey. The climate’s all wrong, and people wouldn’t appreciate him. When asked how he got from Turkey to the North Pole, Oscar told me with complete conviction that Saint Nicholas currently resides in Spain, which again is simply not true. While he could probably live wherever he wanted, Santa chose the North Pole specifically because it is harsh and isolated. No one can spy on him, and he doesn’t have to worry about people coming to the door. Anyone can come to the door in Spain, and in that outfit, he’d most certainly be recognized. On top of that, aside from a few pleasantries, Santa doesn’t speak Spanish. He knows enough to get by, but he’s not fluent, and he certainly doesn’t eat tapas.
While our Santa flies on a sled, Saint Nicholas arrives by boat and then transfers to a white horse. The event is televised, and great crowds gather at the waterfront to greet him. I’m not sure if there’s a set date, but he generally docks in late November and spends a few weeks hanging out and asking people what they want.
“Is it just him alone?” I asked. “Or does he come with some backup?”
Oscar’s English was close to perfect, but he seemed thrown by a term normally reserved for police reinforcement.
“Helpers,” I said. “Does he have any elves?”
Maybe I’m just overly sensitive, but I couldn’t help but feel personally insulted when Oscar denounced the very idea as grotesque and unrealistic. “Elves,” he said. “They’re just so silly.”
The words silly and unrealistic were redefined when I learned that Saint Nicholas travels with what was consistently described as “six to eight black men.” I asked several Dutch people to narrow it down, but none of them could give me an exact number. It was always “six to eight,” which seems strange, seeing as they’ve had hundreds of years to get a decent count.
The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid-fifties, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves they were just good friends. I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet times beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility. They have such violence in Holland, but rather than duking it out among themselves, Santa and his former slaves decided to take it out on the public. In the early years, if a child was naughty, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would beat him with what Oscar described as “the small branch of a tree.”
“Yes,” he said. “That’s it. They’d kick him and beat him with a switch. Then, if the youngster was really bad, they’d put him in a sack and take him back to Spain.”
“Saint Nicholas would kick you?”
“Well, not anymore,” Oscar said. “Now he just pretends to kick you.”
“And the six to eight black men?”
He considered this to be progressive, but in a way I think it’s almost more perverse than the original punishment. “I’m going to hurt you, but not really.” How many times have we fallen for that line? The fake slap invariably makes contact, adding the elements of shock and betrayal to what had previously been plain, old-fashioned fear. What kind of Santa spends his time pretending to kick people before stuffing them into a canvas sack? Then, of course, you’ve got the six to eight former slaves who could potentially go off at any moment. This, I think, is the greatest difference between us and the Dutch. While a certain segment of our population might be perfectly happy with the arrangement, if you told the average white American that six to eight nameless black men would be sneaking into his house in the middle of the night, he would barricade the doors and arm himself with whatever he could get his hands on.
“Six to eight, did you say?”
In the years before central heating, Dutch children would leave their shoes by the fireplace, the promise being that unless they planned to beat you, kick you, or stuff you into a sack, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would fill your clogs with presents. Aside from the threats of violence and kidnapping, it’s not much different from hanging your stockings from the mantel. Now that so few people have a working fireplace, Dutch children are instructed to leave their shoes beside the radiator, furnace, or space heater. Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men arrive on horses, which jump from the yard onto the roof. At this point, I guess, they either jump back down and use the door, or they stay put and vaporize through the pipes and electrical wires. Oscar wasn’t too clear about the particulars, but, really, who can blame him? We have the same problem with our Santa. He’s supposed to use the chimney, but if you don’t have one, he still manages to come through. It’s best not to think about it too hard.
While eight flying reindeer are a hard pill to swallow, our Christmas story remains relatively simple. Santa lives with his wife in a remote polar village and spends one night a year traveling around the world. If you’re bad, he leaves you coal. If you’re good and live in America, he’ll give you just about anything you want. We tell our children to be good and send them off to bed, where they lie awake, anticipating their great bounty. A Dutch parent has a decidedly hairier story to relate, telling his children, “Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things together before you go to bed. The former bishop from Turkey will be coming along with six to eight black men. They might put some candy in your shoes, they might stuff you in a sack and take you to Spain, or they might just pretend to kick you. We don’t know for sure, but we want you to be prepared.”
This is the reward for living in Holland. As a child you get to hear this story, and as an adult you get to turn around and repeat it. As an added bonus, the government has thrown in legalized drugs and prostitution — so what’s not to love about being Dutch?