By Kay Shaw Nelson
'Tis been a bonnie year for Scots and Scottish Americans in our
nation's capital, Washington, DC, where a series of events featuring
the vitality and diversity of Scotland's traditional culture have
attracted considerable attention. Less heralded but most important
is an organization called The Living Legacy of Scotland.
For anyone who likes to hoist 'a
cup o' kindness' and sing the praises of Scots by honoring the past
and celebrating the future, the Legacy's annual reception at the
historic James Monroe House, Home of the Arts Club of Washington,
was the ideal place. Here a convivial gathering of members and their
guests enjoyed a festive evening while honoring the Legacy and its
Founded in March 2000 and
incorporated in the District of Columbia as a nonprofit corporation,
the Legacy has a dual purpose. First, to preserve the rich heritage
of people of Scottish birth or descent and the many contributions
they have made to the United States and the world; and second, to
ensure that this heritage remains a vital, living stimulus to future
To accomplish its objectives, the
Living Legacy is creating and will present educational displays and
productions for public events, for schools, museums, and libraries,
and participate and support Scottish cultural activities, and
provide academic grants and scholarships. It will present both
modern and historic contributions as part of the legacy passed to
As an educational organization
made up of a group of dedicated volunteers who give of their time to
promote and extend the continuing development of Scottish history
and culture, sponsors and benefactors are required. Any supporters
or sponsors will receive recognition in the Legacy's written
materials and receive an invitation for two to a yearly reception
held in Washington, DC.
For information about
participation and donations, interested persons can write to PO Box
11445, Washington, DC 20008.
At the May 2003 reception,
enlivened with Norman Weaver's stirring bagpipe tunes, colorful
kilts, tartans, and Highland dress, the welcoming social hour
featured a display of written and visual exhibits depicting notable
Scots, and renewal of friendships.
The spirit of good fellowship
continued through dinner and thereafter with the singing of
traditional songs by Mary Gillies Swope, Dr. Brian B. Turner, and
Andrew Dodds, followed by welcoming remarks and the introduction of
special guests by the Legacy president, Anne Robertson Kennedy.
The evening's honored guests were
Lord Godfrey Macdonald, High Chief of Clan Donald, and his wife,
Claire Macdonald, a world renowned writer, cook, and lecturer who
has a cooking school at the Kinloch Lodge, one of the family's
ancestral homes, on the Isle of Skye.
The Scottish Literary Forum, a
project of the Living Legacy, brings together those who are
interested in exploring and discussing Scottish literature -
fiction, poetry, essays, and non-fiction. A major emphasis is on
20th century Scottish fiction. At each monthly meeting participants
read and discuss a selected book and from time to time, guest
speakers and authors will be invited to discuss their work. Judith
Walton is chairman of the Forum.
Marilyn Van Voorhis Voshall
Sinterklaas history and traditions
Did you know that there are two
bishops by the name of Nicholas? Both lived and died between 250 and
546 AD. The lesser known was Nicholas, Bishop of Pinora. St.
Nicholas was Bishop of Myra, now in Turkey and called Demre. Pinora,
Myra, and Patara were in Lycia, then known as Asia Minor.
St. Nicholas was born in 271 AD in
Patara and died on December 6, 342 or 343. Recently his original
tomb was found by archeologists. His family was Christian and
moderately wealthy. When he was only 9 years old, his parents died
in an epidemic. Since the church took him in, he later gave all his
wealth to the poor and became a priest. Eventually he was made the
Bishop of Myra. There are many legends about his good works. The
people loved him and he was regarded as a saint.
Around 1087 the Muslims captured
Myra. Christian sailors, financed by local Christian merchants, took
the bones of St. Nicholas to Bari, a seaport in southern Italy. Here
they built a mausoleum for him. Bari then became the center for
worship of St. Nicholas. For an unknown reason the Dutch later had
the saint sailing to the Netherlands from Spain.
In the 12th and 13th centuries the
Netherlands built 23 churches named for St. Nicholas. He became the
patron saint of Amsterdam as well as several other European towns.
Because he so often aided poor children and traveled a lot, he
became their patron saint too. Today he is also the patron saint of
merchants. Guess why!
In the 14th century, the choir
boys of St. Nicholas churches were given money and a holiday on
December 6th. Later monks teaching in convent schools would disguise
themselves as Sinterklaas (an abbreviated form of Sint Nicolaas/St.
Nicholas) and either reward or punish the students according to
Also in the 14th century the
convent schoolboys paraded through the streets during the Christmas
season. One was dressed as a bishop. The others collected money for
the church. Today in certain areas children, sometimes dressed as
the magi, still collect food and money for the poor. Special songs
are sung during this event. They also play a unique drum (called the
foekepot or rommelpot) and usually some type of flute.
Zwarte Piet (Black Peter)
originally was a Turkish orphan who became a helper or servant of
Bishop Nicholas and traveled with him as his constant companion. His
dark features were a big contrast to the blond Dutch so they
envisioned him as black. Another tradition attributes his blackness
to soot from all the chimneys he has to climb down. (Coal dust is
extremely hard to wash off! There is more about chimneys later.)
In Medieval and Renaissance
paintings Sint Nicolaas is shown with long white hair and beard,
wearing a bishop's vestments (a mitre and red cloak over a white
robe) and carrying a gold crosier (staff). On the other hand, Zwarte
Piet is depicted with bright red lips and dark curly hair, wearing a
gold earring and colorful clothes styled from the middle ages. His
costume may vary a little from place to place except for the puffed
hat with its long feather.
Sinterklaas always rides a
Schimmel, a white or light grey horse. Zwarte Piet walks beside the
horse (or sometimes rides another horse) and carries a bag of sweets
and presents and perhaps a roede (rod) or switch (for whipping
naughty children). (In inclement weather they have been known to
ride in a horse-drawn carriage. Somehow through the ages Sinterklaas
was thought to come from Spain, and he obviously modernized his ship
from sails to steam. I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In, an old
English carol, evolves to Zie ginds komt de stoomboot (See, Yonder
Comes the Steamboat) for the Dutch.
Supposedly Sinterklaas departs
Spain for the Netherlands a few days after Martinmas held on
November 11th. He traditionally arrived on December 5th but now it
is in mid-November. Today he has many helpers (about 20 Zwarte
Pieten). The Mayor of Amsterdam and a delegation of dignitaries
welcome him along with large crowds of people, usually with
children. TV cameras broadcast the show live. During the parade the
Zwarte Pieten throw pepernoten ('ginger snaps') to the crowds from
large bags. Children are told that, if they are bad, these empty
bags will be used to carry them off to Spain. (Pepernoten are listed
later under Sinterklaas Holiday Treats.) Every town has a reception
for Sinterklaas with the Mayor and his delegation. Children who
wonder at the sight of so many Sinterklazen are told that he could
not possibly make the rounds without lots of help; so
hulp-Sinterklazen (people who dress up like him to help) are
necessary. This explanation sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Gifts are given on Strooi avond
(St. Nicholas Eve or, literally, straw evening), the night of
December 5th. This evening may also be called Pakjesavond (Parcels
Evening). Sinterklaas usually rides his horse over the roof tops and
Zwarte Piet goes down the chimney and leaves the gifts or a switch
or lump of coal for bad children in the klompen (wooden shoes) left
by the hearth. Another version has Sinterklaas dropping the gifts
down the chimney so that they miraculously land in the right place.
The gifts dispensed by Sinterklaas or Zwarte Piet are usually
various kinds of sweets. A third story has Sinterklaas and Zwarte
Piet knocking on the door with his bag of presents. Opening his
large book, he calls out the name of each person who must then
answer questions about his/her behavior throughout the year. Gifts
go to the good and a switch or lump of coal to the bad. Sometimes,
when the door is opened, Zwarte Piet will throw pepernoten onto a
white sheet purposely laid on the floor. The children sing
Sinterklaas songs as they try to get as many cookies as possible.
For home visits Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, under their disguises,
look amazingly like the father and/or uncle or family friend. In all
versions the children provide treats for the horse by putting straw,
a carrot, and a lump of sugar in their klompen, and perhaps a bit of
water in a pan too.
When adults exchange presents, it
is done differently from what we normally do. They disguise the
contents of the package and usually add a poem, serious or humorous.
A small item might be inside several larger boxes with a verse for
each. These poems must be read aloud to all in the room. There could
even be a humorous gift wrapped beautifully with a poem on the card.
This disguise and verse may have the recipient going several places
in the house only to find another box with another verse. The last
one contains the gift. Often the recipient is expected to guess what
the present is before opening it. Sometimes the worst-wrapped box
will contain the most expensive gift. I vividly recall this
procedure in my family. One year we carefully wrapped up the old
broom by the kitchen door and handed it out to my parents before
giving them the nice present. We also often wrote amusing poems for
the gifts. From personal experience I can say that it is both a
challenge and lots of fun as everyone tries to guess what the gift
will be. Until now, I didn't realize that this was a Dutch custom.
Sometime on December 6th,
according to tradition, Sinterklaas secretly boards his steamboat
and goes back to Spain. There he remains until the following year.
Sinterklaas feestdag lekkers
Some of the traditional treats
eaten during this season are listed here. My three Dutch recipe
books differ slightly on the details and names for the same item.
Apparently the Dutch are very fond of gingerbread (lots of allspice
with an occasional pinch of ginger) and almond paste. These
ingredients are in many of the Sinterklaas recipes.
Pepernoten are the hard
gingersnaps/gingerbread-biscuits thrown by the Zwarte Pieten to the
crowds or through the door onto a white sheet in private homes when
they visit. The children sing Sinterklaas songs as they try to get
as many as possible. (Pepernoot is a ginger nut or gingerbread nut.
Peper is pepper and noten are music notes. The name comes from the
spicy/peppery ginger plus the round shape like music notes.)
wreath/circle) is a white bread molded into a wreath and decorated
with white frosting plus red and green candied cherries plus perhaps
apricots and candied fruit peels. To top it off they add a red
ribbon and holly sprig, both of white are inedible.
Letterbanket (fancy letter cake),
sometimes called Boterletters (butter letters), has a flaky dough
similar to that of pie crusts wrapped around an almond paste
filling. For added zest there might also be some grated lemon peel
mixed with the almond paste.
Speculaaspoppen (hard, brown,
spiced, doll-shaped cookies), also called Speculaas Koekjes
(cookies), are traditional gingerbread-people cookies formed in
wooden molds. When these molds are in the shape of Sint Nicolaas,
the cookies are called Sinterklaaskoekjes (Sinterklaas cookies).
Suikerbeester (sugar beasts) are
animal-shaped sugar cookies loved by children everywhere.
Taaitaai (literally, taai means
tough or hard), a very hard cookie with anise flavoring, is molded
into fancy doll shapes.
Besides pastries there are special
candies. Instead of candy canes they give a Chocolate Initial (for
the first name only) to each person.
Borstplaat (fondant or fudge),
Marsepein (marzipan: a confection made of almond paste and sugar)
and Roomborstplaat (cream fondant or fudge) are three favorites.
Like dough, these fondants and marzipan can be put into molds. When
the molds are shaped like fruit or vegetables, a matching food
coloring is used. There are three common flavorings - peppermint
(with red and/or green food coloring), coffee, and cocoa.
Sinterklaaslieder en kerstlieder
(St. Nicholas songs and Christmas carols)
There are several Sinterklaas
songs. Apparently he likes to hear children singing, so they sing
for him both at the public appearances and at home. I am working on
a music book, Olde Dutch Christmas Songs and Carols, with the
original Dutch lyrics, a very literal English translation and other
information about each piece. If you have copies of any old Dutch
carols and Christmas songs in Dutch, please send them to me! My
address and e-mail are in Who's Who.
Nu ik wens jullie een Zalig en
Vrolijk Kerstfeest en Gelukkig Nieuwjaar! (Now I wish you all a
blessed and merry Christmas and happy new year!)