• Christmas in the Netherlands: a Canadian meets Zwarte Piet

    This article appears in this week's issue of The Magazine, a fortnightly electronic, ad-free, subscriber-supported periodical of articles for curious people. It is crowdfunding a book in hardcover and electronic form (DRM-free) of the articles from its first year that people responded to the most.

    Children dressed in costumes, singing songs at the top of their lungs, line the dock of the harbor in our small village in the Netherlands on the afternoon of November 16. A steamboat purportedly from Spain putters in carrying the group that the kids have waited nearly a year to see again: the Sint and his helpers.

    As the ship arrives at the dock and the occupants disembark, the singing transforms into a high-pitched frenzy. With his red coat and long white beard, Sinterklaas looks an awful lot like Santa, but the similarities end there. He's tall and skinny; he wears a white cassock with a red cape, holds a staff, and his tall red hat has a yellow cross on it. His boat arrives from his home in "Spain" at this time every year.1

    He brings his Zwarte Piets ("Black Petes"), the local equivalent of Santa's elvish helpers, although we never use that word; they're always called by name. There's no North Pole and no snow for this bearded guy and his friends.