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Importing a Dutch tradition

The Saint and company

We celebrated the arrival of Saint Nicholas in Nigeria. The Dutch school was readied for the Great Man’s visit by the two pillars of this Dutch tradition in Lagos, Heleen van Rooi and Rebecca de Groot. The stage was decorated, the games were readied, the beer was set to cool (for the parents), and food was prepared.

It is wonderful that cultural traditions are maintained while living overseas.* Children maintain their link to their heritage and it gives the community a chance to come together in a shared identity. However, as with any cultural import, there are a few caveats.

Here in Lagos, Sinterklaas and his assistant Pieten had to be bilingual. The Dutch school has both a Dutch- and English-language stream, so a little under half the children are non-Dutch speakers. The celebration is elaborate and spans a month of activities. For the Dutch kids it is an exciting build-up to the Saint’s birthday on the 5th of December when they are visited by Saint Nicholas and crew, are identified in the big book, and get presents – if they were good.

For the non-Dutch kids, it is a learning process that takes quite some explaining. You can tell parents that their Santa Clause is in fact a derivative of Saint Nicholas, but to the kids you have to somehow get over the appearance of two imposing gift-bearing guys in red.

Another issue related to importing this tradition to foreign lands is the banality of weather: Holland in December is cold and perhaps wet and dreary; Nigeria in December is hot enough to melt the fat off a chicken.

And so it was that the day of our celebrations our Saint (in wig, robe and long-sleeved shirt) was sweating so profusely that no amount of glue could persuade his moustache to stick. The Saint’s helpers, Zwarte Pieten (translated to Black Peters) were costumed in thick black stocking, black gloves, a black turtle neck, a wig and long-sleeved shirt. Then we paint their faces with black face paint.

There was no breeze and, except under the roof of the stage, no shade. The Pieten entered the school compound, waving and trying their best to be lively, as their role requires. But within minutes they developed a serious skin disorder that created a marbled look of black and white patches. Sweat-streaked, glassy-eyed and panting, they came to our air-conditioned hide-out where we took the worst of the sweat off their faces, applied powder, more black make-up and more powder and sent them on their jolly way. It was pure torture.

And our Dutch Pieten found it hard to play to half an audience who weren’t too sure what to think of this party. Were they frightened or were these black clowns funny? The Dutch kids threw themselves on the bags the Pieten carried in order to get at the candies hidden inside. The other kids tried one or two and that was enough. So, in order to empty their bags, the Pieten found themselves having to pedal their wares.

‘Do you want some?’ asked my son, disguised as Juggling Piet. He held out his black-gloved hand with a handful of.

‘You just asked me that,’ said a surely 7-year old wrinkling his nose at the candies. ‘I said no then too.’

*A nice collection of stories about the experiences of Dutch communities around the world over many years is called Sinterklaas Overseas: The adventures of a globetrotting Saint. On page 74 is my story from 1996 in Pointe Noire, Republic of Congo. An online version can be purchased at:


One Response to “Importing a Dutch tradition”

  1. Sarkis says:

    Oh my goodness! I went to the Dutch school when I was about 3 years old! During my time there they also maintainted the whole Sinterklaas at Christmas event (he would sail in on a boat, where all of us would eagerly await him). Your posts bring back those good old days for me!

    Regarding the Zwarte Pieten, I understand they are the helpers of St Nicholas, but some would say their resemblance to “blackface” is somehow negatively stereotypical; how do you feel about this?

    Thanks for posting this! Lagos is so rich with different cultures

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