Encounter with a celebrity saint

Never having believed in Santa as a child, Khaled Diab was surprised to run into the elusive Sinterklaas on a desolate, windswept beach in the Netherlands.

 

The Sint greets his fans after stepping off his stoomboot

December 2005

 

Noordwijk is a picture postcard example of where not to go in the winter months, unless you happen to be visiting the European Space Agency. That said, in recent years, I have discovered that strolling down a deserted, windswept beach possesses a certain charm and romance, although this is better done in company.


Instead of encountering the wilderness I expected on a grey and overcast morning, I spotted an unidentified heaving crowd. Children sitting on their parents’ shoulders were waving little banners that read ‘Welkom Sint and Piet’. So, they were waiting for Santa Claus, or Sinterklaas, as he is known in Dutch.

 

A Klaas act

Sinterklaas, which falls on 6 December, is surprisingly a big deal in Protestant Holland. His official arrival, which shifts between villages, is broadcast live to the nation.

 

And, there was his tiny boat, rocking sharply on the waves. I found myself wondering how it had managed to make it here from Spain – where he is believed to live. Anglo-Saxons may find it hard to square their image of a portly gift giver with the notion that he may spend his summer months strutting his stuff in Ibiza. But this tradition predates the clubbing era of the Stoned Age.

 

The Sint, clad in his bright red bishop’s outfit, leapt off the boat rather too youthfully for a man that, by my reckoning, is more than 1,700 years old. He was followed by his zwarte piets – his Moorish helpers from North Africa – whom the children adored.

 

Omni present

There was no getting away from the Sint that day. In The Hague, I heard excited whisperings that Sinterklaas was on his way, and television cameras were everywhere.

 

The turnout along his parade route would draw envy from politicians and royalty. A legion of zwarte pieten walked past, giving out speculoos biscuits. Then, the Sint – looking like Gandalf or Bob Geldof – trotted by on a magnificent white horse.

 

This legendary icon is no less popular in Belgium where his name adorns some 300 churches. Belgians believe that the brave Sint saved three young children from certain sausagehood at the hands of an evil butcher. All good Belgian kids write letters to the Sint and leave treats out for him and a sugar lump for his horse. But perhaps the best part of the whole affair is the miracle of the Sint’s annual reincarnation in delicious Belgian chocolate form.

 

Separating the man from the myth

Further reading

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As every smart child eventually learns, Santa Claus is not real. But their parents should be more precise and separate the man from the myth. The real Nicholas (270-345AD) was a Christian born in Patara, a small town in Byzantine Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), to a wealthy family. He became bishop of Myra and used his significant inheritance to help the poor while leading an austere life himself.

 

Nicholas was well known for coming to the defence of the innocent and the falsely accused, often preventing them from being executed. He is also reputed to have prayed for sailors and other travellers which might explain why he is now their patron saint.

 

But the good bishop also had a militant side and he is attributed with destroying several pagan temples, including that of Diana whose birthday also falls on 6 December. Some historians believe this is no coincidence.

 

But, as any child can tell you, it was Nicholas’ charitable work and his love of children that is most remembered. One story tells of how the goodly bishop anonymously helped an old man with the dowry for his three daughters by tossing bags of gold through their open window which landed in stockings hanging up to dry by the hearth (sound familiar?).

 

He was canonised within a century of his death. He may have since attained an odd immortality, been merged with local legends, and given the power to fly over chimneypots, but the real Nicholas and his spirit of giving is an example to us all.

 

 

 

 

This article appeared in the November 2005 edition of (A)way magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

ă2005 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.