Monday, 28 November 2011

Sinterklaas And The Second Month Of Samhain


When I was a child in Dublin my best friend was Diana Hesselink. I could get from my back garden to hers, over walls and across next-door's lawn, in two minutes flat. When we were both about thirteen her family moved back to Holland and I was devastated. But later that summer I was invited to Eindhoven to visit her. It was wonderful. My first flight on an aeroplane, my first holiday without my parents, and my first experience of a different country. 
And to a kid who'd never been out of Ireland, Holland really was different.

Last weekend I was back in Holland, visiting friends who've moved from London to Breda.
But this time instead of being struck by differences I was intensely aware of similarities.
It started with Sinterklaas.
My friends' kids go to local schools and they're integrating brilliantly.I arrived to a kitchen table fast disappearing under the orange crepe paper and papier maché creations that would wrap Sinterklaas surprises for their new classmates. Outside, the shops and streets were full of chocolate letters, marzipan pigs, curly white beards and traditional Zwarte Piet costumes. As we walked to a local restaurant Sinterklas and Piet, in full glory of jewelled mitre, feathered cap, flowing vestments and stripy knickerbockers, showered us with pepernoten from the back of a passing car. We all shrieked and failed to catch them. But there were plenty more of them to eat at home.
These aren't my traditions. But they're completely recognisable. And not just from memories of shoes by the stove in a fifties semi in Dublin, or the chocolate letters that Oma Hesselink used to send to Ireland each December. 
It's more than that. 
The old man in the white beard, his dark helper, the festive food and, above all, the twinkling lights and gift-giving are all part of a tradition of winter festivals rooted in pagan Europe's Celtic and Germanic ritual. 

Here in Ireland the winter festival's called Samhain, the first season of the Celtic calendar year. 
December's the second month of Samhain, the month when the Christian image of the child Jesus, born to bring light to the world, echoes the bonfires lit by the Celts to express confidence in the return of spring.

From the first introduction of Christianity to Europe, elements of older myths and legends have been blended with stories of Christian saints. It was one way of making the new religion acceptable and accessible. And it's the reason why the story of St. Nicholas, who became Sinterklaas - and then, in the US and elsewhere, Santa Claus - resonates with echoes of the pagan god Wodan. 
Wodan was the Germanic god of forests and dark places, a powerful protector of his people in the darkest season of the year. Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas's helper in the Dutch tradition, is an echo of his dark slave. Wodan was worshiped under different names all across Europe, and our Christmas trees and glittering lights are memories of the ritual fires lit to worship him, just as pepernoten, chocolate letters and marzipan pigs are echoes of ancient, communal winter feasts. And in the oldest stories of all the dark helper is himself a god, a shadowy nature spirit, wrapped in fur, whose totems are forest animals.

I love the thought that those links exist and have lasted through millennia across continents, echoing images, ideas and memories, and expressing shared responses to the changing seasons. I love the exuberant optimism implied in lighting fires and feasting in times of scarcity and darkness.

And I've just discovered a link I didn't know of before, between Holland and Corca Dhuibhne.
It's about St. Brendan The Navigator, the fifth-century Irish voyager. According to people round these parts, it was he who discovered America. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that the story of his voyage was a hit all over medieval Europe. It was told in countless languages by countless firesides and, later on, copied into medieval manuscripts.
One of the earliest  versions we have of it is De Reis van Sint Brandaen, written in twelfth century Dutch. 
And last weekend I discovered that one of the earliest versions of the legend of St. Nicholas is preserved in De Reis van Sint Brandaen. 

Shared images, ideas and memories echoed across countries, continents and millennia. 







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