These past two months, it cannot have escaped your notice that Drexel has celebrated Columbus Day, Halloween and Veterans Day. Nor is it any secret that students and the University are preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is, of course, most displeasing, for the celebration of American holidays excludes our non-American student body and is not at all mindful of the cultural diversity that exists across the world. Therefore, I humbly propose that we observe at least one new festivity this holiday season. In particular, one from my country of birth, the Dutch celebration of St. Nicholas Eve.
“Sinterklaas,” as it is known across the pond, is celebrated Dec. 5, the day before the Feast of St. Nicholas. The saint goes by the houses of children across the Netherlands to deliver gifts they have been looking forward to all year. American students will be pleased to note the holiday’s cultural and historical connections to Christmas, though there are a few differences.
The most obvious difference lies in St. Nick’s apparel and mode of transportation. In the Netherlands, his colors are red and gold, and he wears a bishop’s robe and miter. Rather than flying through the night on a sleigh held aloft by the Christmas Spirit, he brings his gifts to Holland in a steamboat and rides a gray horse on his deliveries. This may seem awfully mundane, but of course, he has just one country to deliver to rather than the entire world.
Sinterklaas’ steamboat departs not from a workshop at the North Pole but from a castle in Spain, which is an altogether more practical choice. I do not understand why Santa Claus would prefer the grim North over the Costa del Sol. It must certainly be easier to deliver gifts from a more central location.
Dutch Santa’s practical nature also shines through in his choice of labor force. American Santa makes use of elves, a notoriously elusive race, for his menial labor needs. Sinterklaas, on the other hand, uses black people. The Moors live throughout his native Spain, and he can take them all on the ship to Holland, though presumably they have to cram together.
Children enjoy the flamboyantly dressed Black Petes as much as Sinterklaas himself, for the Petes produce the gifts throughout the year and carry the gift-laden burlap sacks for the good saint. They also distribute candy. Santa does not pay them, but they live on his property and get reams of vocational experience. They are, in this respect, a lot like interns.
There is one aspect of the quintessential Dutch Sinterklaas that cannot be celebrated at Drexel, however. Santa Claus typically drops coal into the stockings of those children who have been naughty. Sinterklaas takes a somewhat more traditional pedagogic approach — he sends his Black Petes to the houses of naughty children not to give gifts but to beat them with a bundle of twigs. For the worst children, he instructs the Petes to descend down the chimney and kidnap them. Stuffed in a burlap sack, they are taken back to Spain (the holiday is Roman Catholic in origin).
I can think of only one objection to the celebration of this fascinating Dutch holiday, namely that participation would mostly be limited to African-American students or to Drexel staff. The Dutch, a people traditionally pale in complexion, devised a solution: White people can participate as Petes by donning a curly wig, red lipstick and blackface makeup. Of course, we live in the 21st century now, and students of color who want to be Sinterklaas are welcome to wear whiteface.
Sinterklaas is just one example of a unique holiday from my country of birth. It could be seen as a stepping stone to recognizing other cultural practices from around the world. Recognizing and participating in a wide variety of holidays is sure to enrich all Drexel students. For this reason, I hope the Intercultural Center and the Office of Equality and Diversity take note of this modest proposal.
Kim Post is a copy editor at The Triangle. He can be contacted at [email protected]