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Sinterklaas on the Party Barge

Living right on a canal in the center of the old city may be a little damp and misty sometimes, but it's definitely the place where it's happening. The canals have been the circulatory system of the Netherlands for centuries, and many parts of the cities were built to take advantage of them. The canals are in many ways better suited for transport than the narrow cobbled streets: I've seen builders working on a house with a flat-bottomed barge moored nearby on the canal to hold loads of sand and gravel and brick which you couldn't haul in by truck, or find any room for on the street if you could haul it in. Early November was the annual "dredging days" when little backhoe-type machines go through the countryside along the canal banks and clean out the accumulated mud and silt at the bottom (it's like keeping your sidewalk repaired, you have to dredge your canals regularly or they fine you). For a couple of weeks little heaps of black gunk were sitting all along the banks, but that stuff is extremely rich and now it's covered with grass and indistinguishable from the original bank (which in its turn, I guess, was built up from previous years of dredging, and so Holland gradually inches its way up above sea level).

The waterways are social gathering-places too; in the warm weather people bring their boats along them, on their way out to lakes or rivers for a row or a sail, and groups of people charter canal boats for an excursion. Back home I've heard the term "party barge" applied to a parent's or grandparent's old station wagon or family sedan used by teenagers to haul boatloads of friends around on prom night. But here it seems more appropriate to apply it literally to a big motor barge carrying a party up or down the canal! Before it turned cold, not a sunny day would go by without the chance of seeing a few festive groups merrily floating and drinking along the water outside my windows. On the canal seems to be kind of a world of its own: you can see respectable Netherlander burgers, who would not consider it appropriate to walk downtown on a Saturday morning wearing shorts, piloting a party barge right through the city center, wearing nothing but a bright blue Speedo and a baseball cap. Nobody seems to think it odd at all.

For truly remarkable party-barge wear, though, you have to wait for the holidays. The Dutch double-dip for Christmas: they have their traditional festivities on the fifth of December, which is the feast day of Saint Nicholas or "Sinterklaas" (not unrelated to a certain jolly old elf); and the 25th itself has been invaded by foreign Christmas traditions of present-giving and the "Kerstman", a more typical Santa-Claus type with a red hat and white beard and big bag of toys. The Sinterklaas presents on the 5th are more traditional, though, and they are customarily accompanied by little poems. If you aren't much of a hand at poetry, you can buy a present at one of the big stores where they have verse-writers on staff for the holidays, and order a poem tailored for your recipient right along with the gift-wrapping.

The poor benighted Dutch do not understand that Santa Claus lives and makes toys at the North Pole, assisted by elves, and delivers the goodies in a sleigh drawn by aerial reindeer: they believe that he lives in Spain (!), where he used to be a bishop, and goes around with a bishop's crook and mitre and red robes, supervising the efforts of a bunch of little tropical natives known as "Black Peters". A couple of Saturdays ago I heard the sound of a band playing up the canal, and after listening for a few seconds I could tell it was coming downstream, so I waited on the lookout. Then what to my wondering eyes should appear but a party barge with a full brass band in the bows, and seated in the stern the reverend Sinterklaas in curly white beard and full bishop regalia, waving his crozier; and clustering all around, a mass of "Black Peters" in rather medieval-looking tunics and ruffs in purple velvet, in classic Sambo blackface, if you please (!). I have no idea if it was celebrating anything special or just a holiday parade. Interestingly, there currently seems to be a ripple of political correctness around the "Black Peters"; I've read contemporary descriptions claiming that their black appearance comes from the soot of the chimneys that they have to keep popping in and out of when delivering presents for Sinterklaas (yeah, right). And there's even a proposal that they should be modified to "Blue Peters". The word doesn't seem to have reached the folks on the party barge, though.

—— Kim Plofker
2004-11-25 18:11:55

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Created: 08 Oct 2003
Last modified: Oct 15, 2004 3:58:04 PM
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