When I arrived home, I sat down at the kitchen table with my bag of goodies. Mom was standing at the stove stirring a pot of chili. Looking over her shoulder, she said, “Don’t spoil your supper with candy. You can eat whatever you want later.”
I protested, “I just want to look at what I got at school.” Opening a small brown paper bag, I dumped it next to my cereal bowl, filled during the night with chocolate covered peanuts, vanilla creams, hard candies and an orange. Mom left the stove to look over my shoulder as I examined my new loot. There was a red and white candy cane, a bunch of peanuts in the shell, several chewy red, white and green mints in wrappers and a popcorn ball. On the way home from school, I’d gobbled down the malted milk balls.
Mom asked, “Did you get to see Saint Nicholas today?”
Shaking my head and grinning with the superiority of a ten-year-old, I said, “Nah. It was just like other years. When we came back inside from our last recess of the day, everyone had a bag like this on their desk.” As Mom sliced bread, I said, “My classmates all celebrate Christmas pretty much the same, but not Saint Nicholas. Only a few put letters to Santa in a cereal bowl like we do. Some of them set out shoes, others hang socks…”
My mother said, “But they all wake up in the morning to find Saint Nickolas treats.” Selecting a chocolate-covered peanut from my well supplied cereal bowl, I popped it into my mouth and nodded. Mom mused, “They probably have different traditions because of where their grandparents lived in Europe.”
I wondered, “When you were little, did you find goodies in your cereal bowl when you woke on Saint Nicholas day, too?”
Chuckling, Mom said, “One year I even got to see Saint Nickolas and Black Pete, his scary helper!”
Surprised, I exclaimed, “What? How did it happen? Who’s Black Pete?”
With a thoughtful expression, as if she was seeing it all again, Mom leaned against the cupboard and said, “My two younger brothers and I were in the living room that night. First, we heard sleigh bells. Then we saw someone looking in at us through the window.”
“You must have been scared.” I squeaked. “Where were all of your big brothers and sisters?”
“I think the older kids were doing the evening chores. It was dark outside and we had snow on the ground.”
“What happened next?” I prompted.
“The faces in the window disappeared and we heard loud pounding on the back door. Someone let them in. We were told it was Saint Nickolas and Black Pete. They promised us that if we were good, we’d get presents for Christmas, but if we were bad, we’d be whipped.”
“But, who is Black Pete?” I asked once again.
Looking a bit uncertain, Mom shrugged and said, “The tradition was that he traveled with the Saint and helped him, usually by punishing bad children.”
Curious to know who they really were, I questioned, “Did you recognize them? Who were they?”
Mom frowned and said, “I don’t know. It could have been one of the neighbors, I suppose. In the morning, we found strange sleigh tracks by the house, but couldn’t tell where they came from because there were so many other tracks in the driveway.”
Many years have passed since my mother related her childhood experience to me. Now I wish I could go back in time to ask more questions. What did the strange visitors wear, what did they say and do? What did Black Pete look like?
In the Netherlands, it is tradition for Saint Nickolas (Sinterklaas) and his helper Black Pete (Zwarte Piet), who is more clownish than scary, to arrive each year by boat from Spain to hand out gifts and goodies. No North Pole for those two. They keep warm and comfy in Spain during the off season.
People debate Black Pete’s skin. Is it black from chimney soot, or because he is a man of color? The answer doesn’t seem to matter. His presence in the holiday is now considered politically incorrect, a racist tradition that has set off riots.
After Mom told me about her meeting Saint Nickolas and Black Pete, I leaned back and watched Mom finish supper preparations, occasionally popping a chocolate-covered peanut into my mouth. The mysteriousness of her childhood, when they only had horse-drawn vehicles and kerosene lamps…and now this strange visit…were things that I accepted without question.