Sunday, December 25, 2011

Prettige Kerstdagen! Merry Christmas!

The West Flemish priest (and poet and Father of the Flemish Movement) Guido Gezelle, nearly always had something so perfectly dead on to say. It may seem a stretch to incorporate him here, but since he did have a strong literary (and emotional) attachment to America (inspired by , he certainly has a stake in the Flemish Contribution to America.

Permit me to pass along this along to you:

Ik wense U:

Ik wense u een jaar, dat zacht als zijde is ;
Ik wense u een jaar, dat blank en blijde is;
Ik wense u een jaar, dat ver van krank is,
Een deugdelijk jaar zo breed als ’t lang is;
Ik wense u een jaar, dat als ’t voorbij is,
Een zalig jaar voor u en mij is.

- Guido Gezelle - "Jaarkrans" 1893
( I wish you a year that is as soft as silk;
I wish you a year that is bright and cheerful;
I wish you a year of endless good health;
A solid year that is as broad and long as it can be;
I wish you a year [which, when it is over, will be] a blessed year for you and for me.
- translation courtesy of Leo Norekens)

Lastly, since this is a day of joy, celebration, and at least occasional heavenly glances, please allow me one more Flemish reference to the Spirit of the Season.

Although he never visited America - and perhaps had zero ties with America - Ludwig van Beethoven was like yours truly the grandson of Flemish emigrants. Beethoven's Flemish origins were however from Antwerp, a port which has given more than its fair share of emigrants to America.

It seems, then, only fitting that since Beethoven's Ode to Joy is not only a popular Christmas tune but also the anthem of the European Union, that I wrap up with this.

Merry Christmas and to all of you my heartfelt wishes for a New Year with all the best to you humanly possible.

Prettige Kerstdagen & Gelukkig Nieuwjaar!

Copyright 2011 by David Baeckelandt. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted without my explicit, written consent. Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Flemish Claim to Sinterklaas in America

Today, December 6th, children in Flanders receive gifts. These gifts ostensibly come from Sinterklaas with the aid of his Moor assistant, "Swarte Piet". This tradition had strong Catholic origins, which of course made it anathema to 17th century convicted Calvinists. Thankfully, key members of the Dutch Reformed Church in Nieuw Nederland who had roots in officially Catholic Flanders, were unwilling to give up their cultural traditions.

One of these key individuals was Annetje Loockermans (whose story I have told earlier here). Annetje was the sister of Govert Loockermans and together with several of her other brothers, represented the Brabantian town of Turnhout well in 17th century America.

Annetje married Olaf van Courtlandt and her children led the Netherlandic colony culturally, politically and economically: her son Stephanus was the first native-born mayor of New York City. Her daughter Maria married Jeremias van Rensselaer (son of Kiliaen, the founder of Rensselaerswyck and the subject of recent books). Later, when her husband died, the young widow raised her children and kept the patroonship profitable. She also kept the traditions alive she had picked up from her Turnhouter mother Annetje.

Baker’s account from Wouter de backer

The earliest evidence of any practice related to Sinterklaas is found in the New York State archives. A surviving receipt from Wouter de Backer (Walter the Baker) to Maria van Rensselaer in 1675, (please see the embedded picture), lists (8 lines from the bottom) says that in addition to cookies ("koeken"), Mrs. Van Rensselaer purchased 2 guilders and 10 stivers worth of Sinterklaas "goet" ["goodies"] - please see an excerpt above and the actual scanned image here.

Later descendants of Annetje Loockermans were to carry the Sinterklaas theme even further: they gave us here in America the poem we know as "Twas the Night Before Christmas" as well as pushed the date we celebrate Christmas from the evening of December 5th/6th to December 25th. Cultural influences being what they are, Christmas is now celebrated even in non-Christian countries like Japan (albeit as a cultural, not a religious, holiday).

So as you hum the latest Christmas jingle, bake your Christmas 'goodies', or scramble for those last minute gifts, take a moment to reflect, if you will, on the debt owed to a few hardy Flemish women in 17th century Nieuw Nederland who transmitted their cultural traditions to the world from Turnhout.

Copyright 2011 by David Baeckelandt. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted without my express, written permission.