Wednesday, November 12, 2014

HvS BOOKS | Dec. 5 - St. Nicholas Eve, "Black Peter" and "Kersti" (Comment)

van Stockum.

St. Nicholas is the patron saint of millers, sailors, Holland and New York City. My mother Hilda van Stockum (1908-2006) loved St. Nicholas, as is clear from her book Kersti and St. Nicholas (1934). St. Nicholas appears each year on the evening of December 5, the day before his feast day.

This is a "Speculaas Moulin",
 a Dutch windmill cookie for 
St. Nicholas Day.
Around St. Nicholas Day, in Holland and Belgium they bake a lot of Speculaas (Speculoos in Belgium) cookies, a virtual sample of which is at right. The edible version includes almonds and ginger spices.

The cookie has a windmill on it because it's a specialty of Holland and other low countries threatened by floods. Windmills - besides grinding corn and wheat, and generating electricity - pump the water out of "polders", the areas inside the dikes that defend against water. We had reason to remember all this in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy in 2012 shut down much of New York City. If NYC had more of the Dutch skill at keeping water out of areas below sea level, and more of the famed foresight of its Dutch founders, Hurricane Sandy might not have done such damage to the areas of NYC near water.

The Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam was founded in Manhattan largely to support trapping beavers and sending them to Europe for women to wear. The New York City coat of arms has two beavers on it as well as a four windmill wings in honor of the Dutch settlers.

First published in 1962, The Winged Watchman
has sold 50,000 copies in reprint since 1997 and 
is currently optioned for a television miniseries.
The Port of Rotterdam is a great example of Dutch engineering to keep water at bay. It is also where my mother, Hilda van Stockum (1908-2006), was born because her father was a naval captain and stayed near ports and naval bases. Hitler bombed Rotterdam in 1940 as a warning to the Dutch to let his troops march in and occupy the country.

Seal of the City of New York..
Note windmill wings and two
Her book, The Winged Watchman (1962), republished in 1997 after 20 years being out of print, is about the Dutch Occupation. It has sold nearly 50,000 copies in the reprint version and is currently optioned for a television miniseries. The book's themes echo in light of Hurricane Sandy, which caused most damage from flooding and lost most of  economic activity because of the electricity outages The story is about a family that lives in a windmill during the Nazi Occupation. Two boys aged 10 and 14 join the Resistance. The book shows how the windmill did their work when the electric mills were starved for fuel during the Dutch famine.

The Dutch have been facing floods for many centuries. Their world preeminence in building windmills to pump out water also made them experts in making sails for the mill wings and this helped make them a global naval power for a time. After the English took over the Dutch colony in 1664, they renamed it New York. The city grew most rapidly when the Hudson River became the gateway not only to upstate New York but also, after the Erie Canal was built, to the Great Lakes.

The "Black Peter" Debate

Will the Netherlands give up "Black Peters"? Or will Pieterbaas 
just lose the blackface?
The "Black Peter" controversy was told in a New York Times story last year by John Tagliabue, reporting from Amsterdam.

In Holland, someone dressed in a St. Nicholas bishop's attire arrives in each town by tradition in November. Then at festivities on December 5, St. Nicholas Day Eve, St. Nicholas appears at each house.

Children go to sleep wondering whether in their shoes and stockings, left by the fireplace, there will be candies and toys. If they have been bad, they get a switch or a lump of coal.

Controversy has erupted over the person accompanying the saint, "Zwarte Piet" - "Black Peter" or a multiple of "Black Petes". They are dressed in the costumes of the Moors, who are Spanish Muslims descended from the ones who invaded and overran Spain in 711 A.D. The Black Petes are in blackface and feathered floppy hats, often with oversized earrings. They do stunts. They are comic figures. They are ordinarily played by athletic white Dutchmen. They are a kind of mascot for the saint and do practical things like take care of the presents.

Having played Santa Claus a few times, I like the idea of having a helper. But the tradition in Holland is now being challenged. Minorities and progressive reformers in the Netherlands are protesting the inferior status of Black Pete:

  • One-third of Dutch respondents to a poll say that the tradition is a problem.
  • Yet at the same time two million Dutch computer users signed onto a Facebook page defending the Black Pete tradition.  What do we make of this?


Kersti and St. Nicholas 
with snowflakes.
Changing a tradition is difficult, but it may be necessary to keep up with social changes. In this case, the problem could be taken care of with two changes:
1. Drop the "black" part of Black Peter and use the other name for him, Pieterbaas (Peter Boss), instead.
2. Stop the blackface. A Moor can be all shades of skin color and doesn't have to have blackface.

Will it happen? Will it suffice?

 St. Nicholas was a central figure in our family's childhood, thanks to the fact that it was a central figure in the childhood of my mother Hilda van Stockum.

When we her children were growing up, and even long into our adulthood, she delighted in dressing up as St. Nicholas. She always made it clear that St. Nicholas' gifts were rewards for good behavior, and that there were less inviting presentations for naughty children, notably a lump of coal in the shoe on the morning of December 6.

The threatening side of St. Nicholas' visit was removed in the American version of the saint. "Sinterklaas" in Dutch became Santa Claus in two phases. First, the jolly saint appeared when "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (beginning "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"), first published in 1823 in Troy, NY; this poem portrayed the saint as a jolly old elf bringing gifts with the help of twelve reindeer. Clement Clark Moore claimed authorship and as in previous years the poem will be read out on December 15 at 6 pm at St. Peter's Church in Chelsea where Moore lived. Thomas Nast finished the picture with a jolly Santa Claus popularized by Coca Cola.

Hilda van Stockum wrote Kersti and St. Nicholas in the late 1930s, during the time she was converting to Catholicism, changing her citizenship from Dutch to American (1936), and having children (1934, 1936, 1938). By the time Kersti appeared in 1940, she had four children, Hitler had bombed her native Rotterdam flat, and Hitler's troops and S.S. police had occupied her country.

Mother's natural instincts were to support the dual role of St. Nicholas as a dispenser of both rewards and punishments. Light is defined by darkness, good by evil, and vice versa.

But with clouds darkening over Holland, and HvS's new conversion to a religion built around unending forgiveness, Kersti becomes a proto-American - a Dutch girl who wants presents for the naughty children as well as the good ones, on the principle that getting a present might be just the encouragement that a naughty child might need to become good. Kersti wants a Santa Claus and so, I think, does every parent. When children are small, it's hard to leave them a piece of coal.

When Kersti came out, the book was widely praised for its illustrations, although they were drawn for a book's spine to be the short end of a rectangle (like A Day on Skates) and they were printed one-fourth the size when the book was published with the spine on the long side. The war in Europe may have created shortages for publishers and restricted their options.

The reviews were enthusiastic about the art, but children's librarians - who were big and loyal fans of HvS - were upset by Kersti's challenge to conventional views about right and wrong. In the original version of the book, good children didn't get presents because St. Nicholas ran out of them. The librarians agreed with Pieterbaas, the voice of convention, who objects to St. Nicholas's listening to Kersti's advocacy of naughty children.

In the second edition of the book, on sale since 2010, the ending was changed by the author's six children, who are all blessedly still living (Olga has just turned 80). Elisabeth did the primary rewrite. St. Nicholas now tells his servant to bring out presents from the "reserves", so everyone gets their presents. The second edition also removes a picture of Pieterbaas looking devastated as he puzzles over St. Nicholas's instructions. It also changes the language to remove the dialect that was given to Pieterbaas. The second edition has been selling well - thank you for buying it. We only get the sales figures from Amazon, not the names of the buyers, so we don't know who you are or we would thank you by name.

But maybe we now need a third edition depending on which way the wind blows in Holland. Will St. Nicholas carry his own bags? Will Pieterbaas be used more commonly than "Black Peter" and will he lose his color? Traditions can be changed, but they need something to change to. We are paying attention. Send me an email if you have a point of view - john (at)

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