In the country where I grew up, the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas’ yearly visit is a hugely popular celebration, rich in rituals and designed to make children happy. Three years ago, the celebration came to New York, where I now live. It seemed only logical to expose my half-Dutch children to this cherished tradition.
A large group of Dutch parents and children gathered at New York’s The Netherland Club. While awaiting the arrival of “the holy man,” they all happily sang the traditional songs about “the bishop,” who, as it is told, hails from Spain and makes his yearly trek to the Netherlands on his white horse with his servants. The lyrics: “His servant stood laughing and told us,” “Those who are sweet will get candy, the others will get spanked.” And: “Even though I am black as soot, I mean pretty well.”
All had been peaceful at the Netherland Club until a number of black-faced minstrels came out of nowhere, ramming on doors and throwing candy into the room. My three year old ran out of the room in utter fear, settling in a hiding spot, somewhere under a table in a closet with the doors closed. The show of well-intentioned fun by a bunch of guys in funny suits, donning afro-wigs and red painted lips was completely lost on my son, forcing me to reconsider the meaning and symbols of the tradition.