Petrus Spronk

Once upon our time…
A story for the child in you,
set in the Netherlands during this time of year.

Lately we hear a lot about old white men who apparently make too many decisions. Well, here is a very old and very white (not necessarily wise) man, a bishop from Spain who virtually runs the show in the Netherlands for about a few weeks, when he comes to visit for his birthday on the 5th of December. And you better listen to what he has to say.

He travels with an entourage of black helpers whose intention it is to scare the bejesus out of us kids. For me, when I had grown out of the stage that I believed in such stories, I came to understand that the old white man represented the light part of the story, while his Moorish helpers represented the dark aspect – a theme which we also found time and again in the bed time stories told to us by our dad around de haard (the hearth). The Brothers Grimm was a definite favourite. We also find the same concepts in the telling of fairy tales – when fairy tales still provided moral teachings for children at a time, a long time ago, when there was very little or no reading.

For us children, this time of year was like stepping into a fairy tale – the magic further enhanced with a possible overnight dump of snow and waking up to a still white neighbourhood. Combine this with a rugged-up evening walk to view the wonders which were presented in the shop window of every banketbakker (fine pastry cook) – the display in the windows which represented the artistic expressions of the baker’s craft. Another interesting aspect of the pastry cook’s business was that each baker had his own specialties and it wasn’t unusual for people to cycle, or walk, half way across town to shop for some of them.

Sinterklaas, as the old white man is known, is a few hundred years old and arrives around the end of November by steam boat in Amsterdam. He also arrives, on the same day, in every town in Holland which has a waterfront in and on a different floating device. As a result I have seen him arrive in a steam boat, a rowing boat, a yacht, a speed boat and even a canoe. The size of the vessel, it seems, relates to the size of the town. When the ship is large enough, de sint (the saint) may even arrive on his white horse (schimmel).

After his arrival at the edge of dry land, he makes his way to the town hall, guided by a group of very excited children of all ages. Once arrived at the town hall or town square, he will be welcomed by the mayor. Addressing the children, Sinterklaas will invariably ask if they have behaved during his absence to which the kids in chorus will scream with delight that they have been good, upon which the zwarte Pieten (black Piets) reach into their sacks and produce handfuls of sweets and peper nootjes (small hard spicy biscuits) which are thrown into the crowd. It could even happen that the the good saint would also explain that those who hadn’t behaved will be taken to Spain in one of black Piet’s sacks.

The whole charade, outdated as it is, but still a very popular part of that time of year, gets the children to understand, for once a year at least, the difference between good and bad. Once the welcome and singing of Saint Nicolaas songs has finished, the show enters the home, where each evening children place one of their shoes, slippers or klompen (clogs) near the fire place in the hope that if they leave a treat for the horse – an apple, a carrot or a handful of straw – Sinterklaas will leave a treat for them, usually something sweet, in their shoe.

You see, Sinterklaas travels with his horse and black helpers along the roof tops, listening to the children’s songs through the chimney – the chimneys through which the zwarte Pieten deliver the treats for the children and collect the treats for the horse. All this is accompanied by singing the well known songs of the season around the kachel (heater) – songs which every child knows and loves to sing along to.

Then on the 5th of December, the part we had all been waiting for. If you are lucky, Sinterklaas will knock on the door of your house, be let in, be given the best chair, and then we, the children, would have to get onto our knees in front of him (remember, he is a bishop) and one after the other answer his queries about our good or bad behaviour. If the answers didn’t please the sint,  you would always be left off the hook with a warning. If your answer did please the saint you would receive a gift.

Busy man that he was, he would leave after a short stay and our dad would get into the serious activity of handing out the presents Sinterklaas had left behind. These were not ordinary gifts – they had to have a meaning and to be accompanied by a poem, or something which rhymes. These had to be read out loud. The point was to embarrass the reader plus explain the gift. The giver writes a poem, preferably a rhyming one which tells the receiver something he/she needs to know. Here you can tell, and make fun of anyone of the family gathered about the table. This is given, and taken, with a grain of salt and turns out in the end to be a hilarious part of the event.

Soon hereafter Sinterklaas returns to Spain and life returns back to normal. I have the most wonderful memories from that time.

Petrus Spronk ( is a local author and artist who contributes a monthly column to The Wombat Post.