Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Flemish Claim to Sinterklaas

The Flemish Claim to Sinterklaas in America

On 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, a few 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 influential individuals was Annetje Loockermans (whose story I have told earlier here). Annetje was the sister of Govert Loockermans (the richest man in North America when he died in 1671) and together with several of her other brothers, represented the Brabantian town of Turnhout well in 17th century America.

Annetje married Olaf van Courtlandt (of Scandinavian roots but born in the northern Netherlands) and her children led the Netherlandic colony culturally, politically and economically. Two in particular are often-cited by historians.  Annetje's son Stephanus was the first native-born mayor of New York City. Her daughter Maria at the age of 17 married Jeremias van Rensselaer (son of Kiliaen, the founder of Rensselaerswyck and the subject of recent books). To this union of Jeremias and Maria a long line of prominent Americans can trace their roots. 

Later, when Maria's 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. One of these traditions became the forerunner of the Sinterklaas ("Santa Claus") traditions we celebrate today.

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), says (8 lines from the bottom)  that in addition to cookies ("koeken"), Mrs. Van Rensselaer purchased 2 guilders and 10 stivers worth of Sinterklaas "goet" ["goodies"]. This is the earliest reference to anything connected to Sinterklaas that survives today in the archives of the European colonists in North America (please see an excerpt above and the actual scanned image here).

Later descendants of Annetje Loockermans were to carry the Sinterklaas theme even further. The family tradition of Sinterklaas came to morph into a cultural tradition that became widespread by the end of the 18th century. An individual who married into one of Annetje Loockermans' descendants captured that tradition in rhyme. The result gave us here in America the poem we know as "Twas the Night Before Christmas" . And it is from this juncture that the date we celebrate Christmas migrated 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 India and Japan (albeit as a cultural, not a religious, holiday). In fact, the spirit of gift-giving and the recognition of this holiday is one of the amazing global cultural expressions of our time.

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 2012 by David Baeckelandt. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted without my express, written permission.