Home > various and sundry > A Postcard: Six to Eight Black Men

A Postcard: Six to Eight Black Men

I was all ready to sit down and write my thoughts about Gates of Fire because I’ve been putting off since I finished the book (for no good reason), but I made the mistake of going to the mailbox and getting the mail. In it today was a card from one of my fellow postcrossers on postcrossing.com. The picture side of the card was this:

Santa has a fantastic hat

Apparently, gold grows on houseplants in Holland.

I looked at it, then looked at it again, then thought, “Why does that black child have a switch and why does that priest-guy remind me of Santa Claus and OH MY GOD THIS IS WHAT DAVID SEDARIS WAS TALKING ABOUT.”

I quickly turned over the card to see a wall of tiny handwritten text from the Netherlands.

Big Tradition!

Reproduction prohibited? The hell you say!

To save your eyes, let me transcribe:

Hello Amadei! We hereby send you a postcard from the coast of Holland. On the picture an old drawing of a Big Tradition here in Holland. It’s a bit similar to your American Santa Claus. Here we have ‘Sinterklaas’, who always ±2 weeks before dec. 5th arrives from Spain on a big steamship. He has many helpers (zwarte Piet), these are all black Moors. From then little children can put their shoe in front of the heating-stove, so Zwarte Piet can come down the chimney to put a little present in it. Climax = 5 dec., when Sinterklaas visits all children to bring big presents. After that he goes back to Spain, taking home the naughty children… 😦

I first learned about this tradition from David Sedaris’ essay “Six to Eight Black Men.” He has a discussion about it with a local Dutch man over how Christmas is celebrated in the Netherlands, part of which is the discovery that Santa doesn’t have elves (which the Dutch man sees as “grotesque and unrealistic,” but instead has six to eight black men (no one’s able to put a strict number on it) as his helpers. From the essay:

The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid-fifties, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves they were just good friends. I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet times beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility. They have such violence in Holland, but rather than duking it out among themselves, Santa and his former slaves decided to take it out on the public. In the early years, if a child was naughty, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would beat him with what Oscar described as “the small branch of a tree.”

You can listen to part of it if you stream this episode of This American Life, Act Two. Or, if you want to hear the whole thing, you can listen here. Or, if you want to read the whole thing, it’s in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.

I highly recommend it.

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