Today we celebrate a very special evening. Because today it is pakjesavond. Or in English: “presents evening. Pakjesavond is the evening before the birthday of Saint Nicolas. Saint Nicolas or as we call him “Sinterklaas” was a 4th century Greek bishop, who was known for secret gift giving. For the full historic background, you might want to read this wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nicholas.
You know Santa Claus has his roots in the Sinterklaas tradition? Sinterklaas/Santa Claus, sounds similar doesn’t it? Well, tonight, we (in Belgium and The Netherlands) do Sinterklaas! For every family it is slightly different. Some parents display toys in the living room on the table, so the children wake up to gifts and sweets the next day. There are also parents who make someone come and knock on the window and put a bag of toys outside the door!
There has been talk about this wonderful tradition across the world when this lady, Verene Shepherd, a UN consultant, called the tradition of Sinterklaas and Black Pete (his helpers) a racist tradition. Although I don’t want to fuel this discussion, I want to show some perspective from people who actually celebrate it. The children!
This year my children have really grown into the Sinterklaas tradition. They are both old enough to understand who Sinterklaas is and what he does. They have memorized the songs and they have drawn pictures for him. But they are still young enough to do all of this in amazement, reverence and generally a lot of AWE. For them it really is a time of magic.
And when the Big Man is in town, we obviously also go and meet him!
For the children it is a time of happiness. It is a time of believing the world is a good place. My children are in awe of the Black Pete's. They are smart, funny, they each have their own special capabilities. There is a "listen Pete"(he listens at the doors of homes to hear which gifts the children would like), and there is a "House Pete" (he ensures the good running of the household). My favourite is “Panicky Pete” (Pietje Paniek). You see, for us, it isn’t racism: it is about giving the children a lovely, wonderful childhood, with great memories. Which, hopefully, they can pass on to their own kids. And when you wonder why the Pete’s are black? Ever tried crawling into a chimney!?