ARE your Christmas ``holi-days'' no longer holy? Are you weary of commercialism, hungry for a bit of peace on earth, goodwill toward one another? If so, you might consider spending Christmas in the Netherlands. I did so last winter, joining my husband's family in the pastoral village of Glimmen, nestled in the northern part of the country. To my surprise, the twin hallmarks of an American Christmas - shopping and gifts - were absent. Instead there were simply family gatherings, accented with a wealth of special pastries, flowers, music, and church activities. Relatives and friends from all corners of the country stopped by to visit. Several days before Christmas, some of us attended a splendid Kerst-ceest Oratorio (Christmas concert) in the 14th-century Martini Church that towers above the Netherlands' major northern city, Groningen.
Then, on a brisk and windy Christmas eve, we sang time-honored Christmas hymns in a modest 13th-century church in the nearby town of Haren. And on Christmas morning, some of us rose early enough to bicycle to the village chapel for a Christmas service. For several days the skies rang with carols from chimes and carillons. The days were both cheery and hallowed, and it was easy to remember that centuries ago a life-changing event took place in Bethlehem.
But what of Santa Claus? I wondered. ``You must mean Sinterklaas,'' my Dutch relatives told me. ``To witness the festivities of Sinterklaas, you must come to the Netherlands at least a month before Christmas, for here that celebration is an entirely separate occasion.'' And so it was that I discovered that Santa Claus (also known as Sinterklaas, St. Nicholas, Old St. Nick, Kriss Kringle, and Father Christmas, etc.) not only assumes different names from country to country, but also different characteristics, habits, and meanings. Yet all of these fellows share a common derivation.
Long ago there really was a man called St. Nicholas. He was born in the year 271 in the town of Pataras, in what is now Turkey. It is said that he was born to prosperous parents and that upon their death he decided to forfeit his wealth and dedicate his life to good works. Eventually he became bishop of the Christian church in Myra, a city near his birthplace. His work was difficult, for he lived in a time when his part of the world was under Roman occupation and Christians were not popular. He rose to the challenge and became known as a fearless fighter for what he believed in. On one occasion, he interceded in the execution of three Roman soldiers who had been unfairly tried, and forced the provincial governor to set them free.
Nicholas died on Dec. 6, 342, and was buried in his own cathedral in Myra. His reputation for kindness and generosity gave rise to legends that ultimately made him one of the most revered of all Christian saints, and the patron saint of sailors and children.
In 1007, after Myra had fallen to the Muslims, a group of Norman sailors raided St. Nicholas's grave and transported his remains to Bari, in what is now southern Italy. From here, his fame spread throughout Europe.
St. Nicholas caught the eye of the seafaring Dutch because of his celebrity as the guardian of sailors. Gradually, his reputation as a benefactor to children became as vital as his role with seamen. Records from the 14th century show that choirboys received small gifts of money on St. Nicholas's feast day each Dec. 6. And convent school students received rewards or reprimands on that day by a teacher disguised as the venerable bishop.
By the 17th century, when most of the Dutch had turned from the Roman Catholic Church and embraced Calvinism, the religious overtones of the Catholic saint had been dropped and the name St. Nicholas had been corrupted to Sinterklaas. Still, in paintings, statues, parades, and imaginations, he remained dressed as the bishop he once was.
Today, Sinterklaas's feast day is celebrated with humor and fervor. Each year, come mid-November, the Dutch stage the steamboat arrival of their beloved bishop. When he lands in Amsterdam Harbor, it is understood that he has come all the way from Spain - considered to be his homeland ever since Bari, his resting place, fell under Spanish rule during the 16th and 17th centuries. For the past 24 years, an angelic-faced Amsterdam architect has portrayed Sinterklaas. The old saint's proxy is welcomed with pomp and pageantry equal to that of a visiting head of state. I had the delight of witnessing the hoopla this year, on Nov. 15.
By 10 a.m. that day, thousands of Dutch children and adults lined the borders of the canal that runs along the Prins Hendrikkade in front of the imposing Central (train) Station. Piped music of children singing Sinterklaas songs danced on the wind while the crowd sang, hummed, or tapped along. Hundreds of pigeons pirouetted overhead, and bells tolled in a nearby church tower.
``He's coming!'' shouted a little boy perched atop his father's shoulders and waving a white flag that announced ``Welcome Sinterklaas!'' All eyes were riveted under the canal bridge.
When the nose of a yellow and green barge appeared, a hush swept across the crowd. In the ship's prow stood Sinterklaas, clothed in a red robe, topped by a white lace gown, a red brocade cape, and a tall red miter. He offered the crowd a benevolent and graceful wave. His prayerful Moorish helpmates, known as his Zwarte Pieten, surrounded him - all colorfully dressed in medieval puff trousers, tights, vests, and feathered velvet caps.
As Sinterklaas disembarked, the air vibrated and smoked with the booms of seven cannon shots. The stately saint then mounted his milk-white steed and began his parade through the city. Countless Pieten leaped, cartwheeled, and leapfrogged before and after Sinterklaas, while some 400,000 fans flanked the parade route.
In the weeks that follow this annual grand entrance, Sinterklaas and his Pieten have a major feat to accomplish: being all places at once. They (with the help of their ``clones'') visit schools throughout the country during the day, repeatedly posing that question of questions, ``Have you been good?'' Tradition says that at night they ride over the tile rooftops and listen through chimneys to double-check on the behavior of youngsters. Each night during the week before Dec. 5, St. Nicholas Eve, children sing songs by the fireplace, write notes to the good holy man, and place carrots or bits of hay in their shoes for his horse - hoping to find a ``sugar animal'' or some other small candy gift in their shoe the next morning.
On St. Nicholas Eve itself, the Zwarte Pieten deliver a sack full of presents for the whole family and their friends, to reward all who have been good. A Sinterklaas present is not at all like a Christmas present three weeks early. The gifts are far less extravagant than most Christmas presents in the United States, and Dutch tradition demands that each gift be accompanied by a poem written especially for the receiver. Whatever the length or quality of these poems, they are usually playfully mocking, urging everyone to laugh at themselves. The most common gift is a foot-long speculaas (lover) - a spice cookie in the form of a man or woman, given to one's sweetheart.
In 1613, the Dutch founded the American colony of New Netherlands and brought with them their Sinterklaas traditions. After the English took over that colony in 1664, renaming it New York, the image of Sinterklaas gradually merged with that of the roly-poly English Father Christmas, whose fete was the same month. Eventually, Santa Claus (a direct derivation of Sinterklaas) and gift-giving became one with Christmas in the New World. Then, aided and abetted by other ethnic influences, the American Santa Claus myth developed to the point where he is now stationed at the North Pole, drives a sleigh pulled by reindeer, and spearheads the largest shopping campaign in the world.
Now that I've celebrated Christmas and Sinterklaas as two distinct events, I question the wisdom of the early Americans who merged them. Inevitably, the importance of Christmas as a time for quiet reflection gets lost in the hustle and bustle of American Santa Claus festivities. So much so that when we Americans walk through a store and hear ``Silent Night'' playing as background music, our first thought is not ``peace on earth,'' but ``Oh my goodness, I haven't started my Christmas shopping!'' The Dutch are saved from this curious ambiguity. If you visit that country one December, you will see what I mean.