“I’ve circled what I want Sinterklaas to bring this year,” my seven-year-old son declares as he hands me the ‘Toys“R’”us’ catalogue.
I scan his selection and nearly have a heart attack. As expected, his choices are all marked on the Lego Star Wars pages. But Thibaut strategically ignored the cheaper sets, exclusively circling four sets in the $100 to $200 range, far exceeding the $50 budget we usually grant Sinterklaas for his purchases.
“You know, those sets are expensive. I don’t think Sinterklaas has that much money,” I tell my son.
“But that’s why I chose them. Sinterklaas doesn’t need money. He makes the toys!”
“No, he doesn’t,” I reply, grateful that I decided four years ago to hang on to our Belgian version of Santa Claus, instead of adjusting to the American ways.
“Santa Claus only comes for the American children,” I had declared at the time. “Belgian children have Sinterklaas.”
A word of explanation for those who don’t know Sinterklaas is in order, I realize.
Starting out as a bishop long ago in faraway Turkey, Saint-Nicholas (or Sinterklaas) was a good man who cared for the poor, motivating the rich people to share with the less-fortunate.
Somehow over the centuries, Sinterklaas’ personality seems to have split in two.
One of his halves moved to the North Pole and started visiting the United States on a yearly basis in a sled pulled by a bunch of flying reindeer. Just like everyone who spends a lot of time in the States, Sinterklaas gained a few pounds and shed his stern aura. The man scored himself a wife and recruited a small army of little people who happily set off to work in a toy factory that would have made Henry Ford jealous. Through all those reforms, the skinny, intimidating and severe-looking alter-ego of Sinterklaas has transformed into a chubby and cheerful Santa, whose dark eyes — almost completely hidden by his round, red cheeks — seem to light up as he utters countless ‘Ho-ho-ho’s’.
Meanwhile, Sinterklaas’ other half also packed his stuff and moved from Turkey to Spain, where he started focusing on children. Before some of your dirty minds go into overdrive, a word of warning. Sinterklaas’ fascination with kids is not in the least perverted, even though he initially did enjoy the occasional spanking of badly-behaved boys. Nor is the man obsessed with children all the time either. Tradition has him living in sunny Spain all year, in the company of his mischievous servant, Zwarte Piet (literally ‘Black Pete’) and a white horse. Nobody really knows what Sinterklaas, Piet and his horse do all year. They certainly don’t keep busy making toys, the ways Santa’s elves do. The general assumption seems to be that they just lazily hang around, enjoying the warm weather and eating good food. But comes the end of November, Sinterklaas and his sidekicks start rolling. The three of them embark on a steamboat and set off for Belgium (don’t ever believe the Dutch when they say Sinterklaas is headed for Amsterdam. Antwerp is his destination, as all Belgians know). Once there, Sinterklaas moves from throne to throne, posing for pictures with children at department stores, corporate parties and youth clubs.
Then comes the night of December 5, the eve before Sinterklaas’ very own birthday. Instead of granting the poor, skinny, old man a much needed night’s rest, he is forced to mount his white horse. Now, this horse proceeds to exhibit some sudden magical powers by gracefully elevating itself onto the rooftops, where it’s hooves find perfect grip on the ice-covered tiles. Zwarte Piet — Sinterklaas’ faithful helper — walks next to the horse, carrying a big bag filled with toys. He is the one who descends down every chimney — hence his black face — artfully arranging the toys around countless Belgian fireplaces.. Grabbing the carrots that grateful children have left in their shoes to reward the magic horse, Zwarte Piet swiftly replaces them with unwrapped chocolate and candy, which Belgian kids will eat the next day — completely oblivious to any potentially funky shoe odors. In the olden days, Zwarte Piet’s sack also contained a whip which he would use on the ‘lucky’ bad kids. Their less fortunate bad peers would be unmercifully stuffed into Zwarte Piet’s sack and be delivered to Sinterklaas for a proper punishment, whatever that might have been. Nowadays however, Europe got more civilized. Even we think using whips on kids and stuffing them into sacks might potentially be traumatic. As a result the whipping and sack-stuffing have been deleted from Zwarte Piet’s job description, considerably improving the man’s popularity among children.
My decision four years ago to adhere to our Sinterklaas tradition and to ignore Santa, was not borne out of a stubborn refusal to adjust to the American way of life. I just figured that our winters were spiced with enough presents as it was. What with both our children’s winter birthdays, Sinterklaas, our family’s Christmas gift exchanges, plus New Year? Besides, we had initially planned to move back to Belgium in a mere two years time, so why add new tradition we’d soon be dropping ?
“Where does Sinterklaas get his presents if he doesn’t make them?” Thibaut wants to know.
Now that’s a good question. Nowhere in the Sinterklaas stories, can one learn where the man gets his toys. Were they purchased at the store down the street? Does the bishop have an underground superstore in his Spanish Castle? Or does he use magic to fill Piet’s sack? It’s all very vague.
“I think he buys them,” I reply.
“That’s not possible!” Thibaut exlaims. “Everyone would recognize him if he went to the store.”
“Well,” I say, stalling while I think. “Maybe he sends Zwarte Piet to the store. He wouldn’t stand out as much.”
“With his flashy clothes and his silly hat with the feather? Mama, everyone would stare at him!”
“Well, … , I guess they just order everything from Amazon then,” I say, proud of my reply.
“For all those kids? That would take forever! Besides, Sinterklaas would have to give his password to Zwarte Piet. He’d never trust him to order stuff on Amazon!”
“Okay, …, well, …, I really don’t know where he gets the presents, but he certainly does not make them. You’d better choose some cheaper Lego sets for him to bring. He’ll never have enough money for the ones you selected.”
Slightly disappointed, Thibaut sets to work again, leafing through the catalogue in search of cheap presents. Suddenly his face lights up.
“I know what I’ll do!” he announces. “Soon I will become American, right?”
“Well, not very soon, but you will, eventually,” I reply, wondering where this is leading.
“Well, I’ll write an email to Santa, asking if he can come to our house this year already. Santa doesn’t need money to make Lego sets. He’ll bring me the ‘Death Star’ or the ‘Millenium Falcon’ for sure!”
“What about Sinterklaas then?”
“That’s the good thing!” Thibaut jumps to his feet, all smiles. “You said we would be American AND Belgian. So Sinterklaas will still bring the good chocolate, the candy and the cheap presents and Santa will bring the cool toys!”
Oh, I guess we’d better start saving then …
Want to read more? Helene Toye’s book : “Go West: A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood” is available on http://amzn.com/1493592548