11 November 2009

"Saint Martin and Saint Nicholas"

This is an exerpt from Cornelia De Groot's 1917 book When I Was a Girl in Holland


As you have your St. Valentine and your Hallowe'en, so we had St. Martin and St. Nicholas.

St. Martin was celebrated on November eleventh, but only in such villages and towns as had preserved ancient customs. On the evening of the eleventh, soon after we had come out of school and it was dark, we gathered a lot of dry twigs and shavings, and if possible, we procured a tarred barrel. We toted these things to a meadow right back of the village. There we built a fire and we danced and shouted around it as if we had been wild Indians. Father used to tell us of a boy who ran right through the flames of a St. Martin's fire, scorching his hair and clothes. I deplored the degenerate days I had been born in, for there was not a single boy among us children who had the courage to follow this hero's example.

When the fire was out, we walked two or three abreast, holding Chinese lanterns or a candle stuck in a turnip with a paper bag around it, somewhat resembling your pumpkins on Hallowe'en. Some of the boys had firecrackers. We sang many school songs and also a ditty about St. Martin being very cold and needing fire-wood, while we were serenading some of the village people and the nearest farmers, who rewarded us with a few cents. Later we went to the baker and bought cookies and sweets for the money and divided this amongst ourselves. Thus the fun ended.

The day of days, to us, was the sixth of December, St. Nicholas Day. St. Nicholas was once a bishop in Spain and beloved by all for his good deeds. That was many hundreds of years ago, but since then he is supposed to come from Spain with his black servant each December.

He is said to ride on a white horse through the air, and on the eve of the sixth, his feast day, to jump from roof to roof, where he descends through the chimney into the house. There he finds, standing in a row, the children's baskets with a tuft of hay for his horse in each of them, and he fills them with sweets and toys if the little ones have been good, with a turf and salt if they have been bad or are becoming too big to be thus remembered by him. Then he hides the baskets somewhere in the room. Noiselessly, he now climbs up through the chimney, mounts his waiting charger and visits another house.

Several mornings before the great event we would find a sort of ginger-cake called "taai-taai," in the form of a woman at the churn, Adam and Eve under the apple-tree, of a boy or a girl, or some animal, in our stockings as we awoke. In the evening, especially on the eve of the sixth, St. Nicholas himself, dressed in a long tabard with mitre on his head, followed by his black servant who carried a bag, would enter the living-room. Sometimes the good saint was dressed up so unsaintlike, resembling more a tramp-burglar than a bishop, that we little ones were frightened and hid behind mother's chair, although we quite well knew there was no such thing as a "Sinterklaas," as we called him in Frisian. He would ask whether we had been good or bad; if bad, his servant would take us along in the bag and carry us to the attic where he was supposed to keep a mill, and in this mill he would grind us to pepernoten or peppernuts, the tiny gingerbread cookies. Of course, mother always said we had been good children, and then he would open the bag and throw handfuls of pepernoten on the floor. We forgot our fear, and coming out of our hiding-places, we picked up the cookies, finding them in every corner of the room.

Early in the morning of the sixth we awoke, and in our nightclothes and on bare feet we would run into the very cold front-room and hunt for the baskets. They were hidden in some corner, behind a piece of furniture or in a closet. As soon as we had found them we carried them into the warm living room and there we examined the contents, consisting of one toy or a book for each of us, and several figures, some large, others small, of taai-taai, the brown, flat, tough cake, of which we were so fond, and which was made by the bakers all through the country on this feast of St. Nicholas only. There was always a girl, a couple of feet tall, for a boy, and a boy for a girl, and these we hung against the wall and kept for weeks sometimes. The others lasted only a few days.

Then there were figures and letters made of a sweeter kind of cake, more pepernoten, cookies, letters of sweet chocolate, and hearts of a very sweet pink or white candy, and the initial of our given name made of a deliciously light pastry, the filling of which was made of almonds and other ingredients. We called it "marsepyn." [marzipan] It was very rich and by every one considered a great delicacy. We also received a flat cake, resembling a pancake; it was sweet and decorated with gold tinsels.

We went to school early that morning to tell other children of the treasures we had received and to make comparisons. Now, for years we had known the truth about St. Nicholas; I had discovered it at the age of six, but the little comedy was kept up each year, just as a child may talk to a doll while knowing very well that it is not alive and cannot hear. And our fear of St. Nicholas when he was dressed so disreputably and growled so fiercely, was genuine, although we did not believe in him.

In school, the younger children sang a song in his honor and the teacher also gave them each a figure of taai-taai.

On the eve of St. Nicholas, many grown-ups and also some of the older children went to the baker to listen to the results of the raffle which he had been conducting. Our family usually won at least one prize, and sometimes two. These were several letters of marsepyn, taai-taai, big cakes, gigantic loaves of bread with currants, or other sweets. Small shopkeepers held raffles of toys, dry-goods and other things.

The baker that evening also conducted a sort of gambling hall in his bakery. Young and old were throwing dice to win more taai-taai and more sweets. These people never gambled at any other time, many never even played cards, yet at such a time some of them would not stop until all their available cash was gone and they had nothing to show for their folly but heaps of cakes and tarts and other sweet stuff. It was a very good day for the bakers. A few years ago, a law was passed, prohibiting this raffling and dice throwing.

We children did some impersonating St. Nicholas on our own account, too. A couple of evenings before St. Nicholas Eve we dressed up in old clothes that belonged to our mothers and older sisters, and tied before our faces masks of paper which we had cut out and colored ourselves. We put on long gloves, and, supplied with a big bag of pepernoten, went to a few of the poorest homes where there were several little tots, and, opening the front door carefully, threw handfuls of the confectionery on the floor. We must have been a queer lot of Sinterklaases, and I am sure that the fun it gave us must have far exceeded in magnitude the good and pleasure the poor children derived from the few pepernoten.

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