All about cycling in the Netherlands
When large crowds gather in the centres of the cities of the Netherlands for THE event of the year, you can be sure many of these people arrived by bicycle.
For most children in the world, Christmas is the time they get presents from either Father Christmas or Santaclaus. But the latter name derived from “Sinterklaas”, the Dutch popular form of Saint Nicholas, the saint who brings Dutch children their presents on the evening of the 5th December. It is a very old tradition that Sinterklaas arrives in the country mid-November with a steamship from Spain where he resided the rest of the year. After this big entrance and in the weeks before the actual present-night, children are allowed to put their shoes near the chimney at night and sometimes they will find a small present in their shoe the following morning. The arrival of Saint Nicholas is a very big event for all Dutch children big and small and it is broadcast live on Dutch television. Some hours or a day later, every city, town and village of the Netherlands celebrates its own arrival. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of people come to witness this festive event. And practical as the Dutch are, many of them cycled there.
Sinterklaas is accompanied by his –now controversial– black helpers called Zwarte Piet. To most Dutch who grew up with this tradition, this “Black Peter” figure represents warmth, togetherness and getting presents. But others point out that painting a white face black has a totally different and offensive meaning to them; that of the 20th century blackface minstrel traditions of the US and later the UK. That tradition is not widely known in the Netherlands and to most Dutch Zwarte Piet is (or was) just a harmless fairy tale figure. The discussion really reached the big public for the first time this year and took an ugly turn sometimes. But this blog is about cycling so I won’t go into this further. I do think that it was already clear from changed details this year, that the Dutch must and will gradually change their tradition, so “Pete” will become as inoffensive to others as he has already been to them for a long time.
Many of the children who came with their parents to the Sinterklaas arrival came dressed up as him or his helpers. The video shows how they arrived on their bicycles near the site where Saint Nicholas would leave the boat to enter the city on his white horse. Salutes were fired to announce the boat was near and marching bands played Saint Nicholas songs as thousands witnessed the gift-bearer on this tour to the main city square. On the steps of City Hall, the major festively welcomed him and everybody sang along with a welcoming song. One dad thought it would be a good idea to have his children stand on top of the bakfiets. But they really couldn’t look over all the tall adults standing in front of them, many of whom had a child sitting on their shoulders.
This week’s video tries to capture the festive atmosphere and the arrival of the spectators on an array of different types of bicycles in the city of ’s-Hertogenbosch.
I found an English version of the more than a century old song which is sung in the video to Saint Nicholas on City Hall Square.
Look there is the steamer
from far-away lands
it brings us Saint Nicholas
he’s waving his hands
his horse is a-prancing
on deck up and down
the banners are waving
in village and town
Black Peter is laughing
and tells everyone
the good kids get candy
the bad ones get none
Oh dearest St. Nicholas
if Pete and you would
just visit our house
for we all have been good
The Amsterdam Cycle Chic blog also had a post on the cycling visitors coming to see Sinterklaas!