Since many centuries, the fifth of December is a special day in Dutch folklore. On this day the Dutch celebrate the birthday of ‘Sinterklaas’ (Saint Nicolas). According to tradition he always arrives in The Netherlands two weeks before his birthday by boat, a big steamboat.
Sinterklaas, being a patron saint of children, doesn't come empty handed of course. He brings sacks full of goodies which he delivers by horse to all Dutch children assisted by his helpers, called Petes. That is, if the children have been good over the past year. If not, he takes them back to Spain. Needless to say, all children are on their best behaviour especially shortly before the Saint arrives. Therefore, as far as we know, 'Sinterklaas' has never had to take this drastic measure.
War or no war, both children and adults celebrate the feast of ‘Sinterklaas’. So did the various Dutch military contingencies away from home during the war. However, the saint’s means of transport varied a little depending on his place of visit.
1. 'Sinterklaas' arriving by tank at the Princess Irene Brigade somewhere between 1940 and 1943. This regiment was established in Wolverhampton during the war from Dutch military personnel that had escaped from The Netherlands to England and from Dutchmen who had been recruited from various other countries.
We know from books and diaries that the Dutch 322 fighter squadron likewise celebrated ‘Sinterklaas’ in style. Excitement grew as the wintry day progressed and evening fell. Gifts were being wrapped and ‘tongue in cheek’ poems, a very essential part of the tradition, were being composed. The separate messes of pilots and ground crew were decorated to welcome the bearded Saint in his red cloak, accompanied by at least one black and mischievous assistant, called Piet (Black Pete).
2. Artist impression of the entrance of Sinterklaas (fortunately he was of Spanish and not Scottish descent).
His costume, beard or wig may have looked a little improvised, due to wartime limitations. Also, beer definitely flowed more freely than at home in Holland. But the alcohol added to the vigour with which the familiar Sinterklaas songs, endlessly practised in childhood, were sung.
For one evening, the war seemed far away.
Unpublished diaries 1940-1945 - Louis Hartlooper, 322 ground engineer
Jachtvlieger, de ervaringen van een Nederlandse Spitfirepiloot bij de RAF - J. Flinterman, 1962, uitg. van Goor
1. From the book: Enkele gebeurtenissen uit de geschiedenis der Nederlandse strijders 1940-1943 - Het Comité ter bevordering van het welzijn van Nederlandse strijders
2. Artist impression of Sinterklaas by Peter Utton