Sinterklaas, the Zwarte Pieten and their Workcycles Transport Bikes

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The Sinterklaas “Intocht” (arrival parade) needs no introduction for the locals who began chasing Sinterklaas and his many “Zwarte Pieten”along the Amstel river and through the streets of Amsterdam as toddlers. It goes approximately as follows:

Sinterklaas is the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus. While they’re both apparently Saint Nicholas only Sint’s white beard bears any resemblance to the fat “Ho Ho Ho!” fellow in the red snowsuit who flies his reindeer driven sleigh from the North Pole. Sinterklaas is tall, skinny, serious and righteous. He comes not from the north, but by ship from Spain. Sint himself is not actually Spanish; he’s Turkish. I suppose it’s all really a lot less weird than flying a reindeer powered sleigh from the North Pole.

Sinterklaas 2010 Den Haag
Sinterklaas on his white horse

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Santa Claus in his reindeer-powered flying sleigh

While Santa Claus has some elves to help him out Sint has an entire army of Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes). The Pieten do the heavy lifting as well as the “naughty or nice” judging of the children. Naughty children get their gifts replaced by coal and truly heinous kids are stuffed into a sack and brought back to Spain. I’ve never been clear on just what despicable crimes a child must commit to be sentenced to a holiday in Spain but I assume it must be worse than struggling to avoid having their teeth brushed or head-butting their baby sister.

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Pascal didn’t get stuffed into a sack and brought to Spain but he did get a bunch of pepernoten dumped on his head by a mischievous Piet.

Depending on who’s telling the story in what era Zwarte Piet has variously been depicted as a shackled devil, a chimney sweep, a Moor colorfully dressed as a renaissance era page, or a Moor colorfully dressed as a renaissance era page whose face is blacked from descending many chimneys. The first explanation has been abandoned since it doesn’t sound nice to modern children and the rest each have their modern adherents. In the modern tradition Zwarte Piet, or rather an entire battalion of Zwarte Pieten, have been played by men and women in blackface which provokes a surprisingly little bit of controversy for it’s being potentially racist (depending on which version of the story you want to believe).

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Only confusing an already convoluted story: A Moorish Piet probably wouldn’t even be black since what the Europeans referred to as “Moors” were mostly Berbers and Arabs from northern Africa. As a resident of a city with a considerable population with roots in this region I can assure you that they’re usually not particularly dark skinned. But heck, Shakespeare also portrayed Othello as black in so who am I to argue? Not that any of this is terribly relevant aside from showing how confused traditions can get.

Racist or controversial or not this is an enormously popular celebration, as witnessed by some half million happy fans lining the streets of Amsterdam in the rain (remember: We’re not made of sugar.) cheering the arrival of Sinterklaas and 670 Zwarte Pieten. Interestingly I spotted what seemed to be a handful of black Zwarte Pieten, also in blackface of course.

Each year Sint and the Pieten load up a ship full of “pepernoten” (little cookies like ginger snaps) and stuff in Spain and sail for Holland. Their exact route is unclear but they do end up sailing up the Amstel, which is odd considering that this is inland from Amsterdam. Perhaps they’ve chosen another inland route to pick up carrots for the horses or something.

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Zwarte Piet with a nice big carrot for the horses.

Once they reach the Amstel thousands of families with kids on bikes and in bakfietsen ride along the banks cheering Sint and the Pieten onward. The ship lands by the Scheepvaartsmuseum (the shipping museum) in the center of Amsterdam and Zwarte Pieten and Sint parade through the streets in all manner of Dutch vehicles and conveyances.

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Inline skate Piet with balance bike Pascal.

Sinterklaas rides his white horse while the various Pieten show their preferences for Workcycles transport bikes, but also inline skates, unicycles, fire engines and in an unfortunate development this year: scooters. Yuck, we don’t like scooters, but we’ll discuss the problem of scooters on the bike paths another day.

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Degenerate Pieten on scooters

Meanwhile we’re doing our best to keep our own kids from going down the gateway drug, slippery slope of scooterdom, beginning of course by cycling daily with them from about a month old.

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A couple young bakfiets passengers

It could eventually backfire but thus far it seems to be working; Pascal is absolutely crazy about his teeny bike, insisting on riding it everywhere we go. He calls it his “Beanits bicycle” (BMX bicycle). Not only are we getting a kick out of watching him ride we’re also not complaining about no longer having to carry him around, nor about him coming home exhausted from a day of “cycling” all over the city, ready for a nap.

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At such a young age (two) kids learn such motor skills amazingly quickly. After just a couple weeks on the bike Pascal figured out he could push off and ride with his feet in the air. Two weeks later he’s maneuvering along busy sidewalks, up and down Amsterdam’s cobblestoned bridges and “jumping” off steps and curbs. Obviously we don’t let him get too far since a two year old’s judgement must be pretty close to nil but he’s been very well behaved so far… which partially explains why he didn’t get shipped to Spain last week.

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His first Halloween costume? The great Eddy Merckx of course!

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12 Responses to “Sinterklaas, the Zwarte Pieten and their Workcycles Transport Bikes”

  1. Frits B Says:

    “Sint himself is not actually Spanish; he’s Turkish”. Tread carefully here! Saint Nick was a Greek, born in the 4th century during the Byzantine empire when the Turks had not even started moving westward from their Central Asian steppe. He was bishop of Myra which now is called Demre.
    Sinterklaas has long been a rather indefinite occasion, but was more or less canonized by an Amsterdam school teacher, Jan Schenkman, who in 1850 wrote an illustrated book about him. Sint has been a bearded bishop ever since, riding a white horse, and accompanied by black servants in 16th century Spanish court costume (don’t ask).
    The horse is called Amerigo nowadays, whereas in Belgium it seems to be called Slecht Weer Vandaag (Bad Weather Today). The Roman-Catholic calendar has his name day on December 6, whereas traditionally the Dutch gave their presents on St. Nick’s Eve which is the day before, so the 5th. And all Pieten are called Piet, of course, even the girls among them.

  2. Amsterdamize Says:

    I caught them at Dam square :)

  3. Patrick McCarthy Says:

    Say… that a 20″ wheel on the front of the carrot-bearing Piet’s bike?

    Would you, could you make a bike with your normal-type specs but smaller wheels? Looking for something tough but compact to replace a Brompton.

    Groeten uit Brussel.

  4. henry Says:

    Patrick,
    Yes, the naughty carrot bearing Piet is riding a Monark Truck with 20″ front wheel. It’s a sweet old-fashioned delivery bike.

    In some cases it’s possible to build bikes with wheels a size smaller than originally intended. For example 24″ wheels in a Fr8 makes a great bike for a small person who needs to carry a couple kids and groceries. 26″ wheels in a city bike originally designed for 28″ wheels will lower the standover height. We do have to be careful with steering geometry and change quite a few parts to do this properly, though. That’s not cheap.

  5. Frits B Says:

    @Henry – Sint even had his traditional cross back on his mitre!!!

    @Patric McC – You mean like this: http://www.kemper-velo.de/fahrraeder/transportraeder/lorri/ ?
    No idea how this feels on the road.

  6. Frits B Says:

    @Patrick McC – Almost forgot: I met a man last week who rode an Azor Antivanda, 24″ wheels on a no-nonse bike. Henry sells the fabrieksfiets version. He = the man said it was a nice compact ride; carries 50 kg front and 35 kg rear plus rider. Nothing fancy, though. And it helps if you’re short.
    http://www.workcycles.com/home-products/professional-transport-bikes/azor-factory-bicycle

  7. Patrick McCarthy Says:

    Thanks for the replies and extra info, gents!

  8. Norms Says:

    Last thursday I went to see ‘Sint’ the horrormovie about Sinterklaas and watched the good Sint and his helpers slaughter about 300 of my fellow Amsterdammers including a whole hospitalward of innocent kids eagerly awaiting the arrival of the evil bishop.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QK55nao-vvw&feature=related

    I actually thought that was funny….

  9. dada Says:

    A Turkish flying a reindeer powered sleigh from the North Pole??? OH oh ho!!! This is really fun!

  10. Tad Salyards Says:

    David Sedaris wrote a humorous article about Dutch Xmas. Funny stuff.

    http://www.esquire.com/features/ESQ1202-DEC_SEDARIS

  11. ethan Says:

    Is that a real picture of santa in the sky in his sleigh? If it is tell me because i believe in him and i wanna know that he is real.

  12. henry Says:

    Of course it’s real. I found it on the Internet!

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