arcana imperii :: the book of j


a dutch xmas - david sedaris

«six to eight black men: a heartwarming tale of christmas in a foreign land where, if you've been naughty, saint nick and his friends give you an ass-whuppin'», by david sedaris.

«i've never been much for guidebooks so when travelling abroad, my first question usually relates to barnyard animals. "what do your roosters say?" is a good icebreaker, as every country has its own unique interpretation.

grecian roosters crow "kiri-a-kee," and in france they scream "coco-rico," which sounds like an order for one of those horrible premixed cocktails with a pirate on the label. when told that an american rooster says "cock-a-doodle-doo," my hosts look at me with disbelief and pity. "when do you open your christmas presents?" is another good question, 'cause i think it explains a lot about national character.

in france and germany, gifts are exchanged on christmas eve, while in holland the children open their presents on december 6th, which is nationally celebrated as saint nicholas day. it sounded sort of quaint until i spoke to a man named oscar, who filled me in on a few of the details as we walked from my hotel to the amsterdam train station. unlike the jolly, obese american santa, saint nicholas is painfully thin and dresses not unlike the pope, topping his robes with a tall hat resembling an embroidered tea cosy. the outfit, i was told, is a carryover from his former career, when he served as the bishop of turkey.

"i'm sorry," i said, "but could you repeat that?" one doesn't want to be too much of a cultural chauvinist, but this seemed completely wrong to me.

for starters, santa didn't use to do anything! he's not retired and more importantly he has nothing to do with turkey. it's too dangerous there and the people wouldn't appreciate him. when asked how he got from turkey to the north pole, oscar told me with complete conviction that saint nicholas currently resides in spain, which, again, is simply... not... true.

while our santa flies in on a sled, the dutch version arrives by boat and then transfers to a white horse. the event is televised and great crowds gather at the waterfront to greet him. i'm not sure if there's a set date, but he generally docks in late november and spends a few weeks hanging out and asking people what they want. "is it just him alone?" i asked. "or does he come with some backup?"

oscar's english was close to perfect, but he seemed thrown by a term normally reserved for police reinforcement. "helpers," i said. "does he have any elves?" maybe, i'm just overly sensitive, but i couldn't help but feel personally insulted when oscar denounced the very idea as quote, "grotesque and unrealistic." "elves," he said, "they're just so silly." the words silly and unrealistic were redefined when i learned that saint nicholas travels with what was consistently described as "six to eight black men." i asked several dutch people to narrow it down, but none of them could give me an exact number. it was always "six to eight," which seems strange, considering they've had hundreds of years to get a decent head count. the six-to-eight black men were characterised as personal slaves until the mid nineteen-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 hours beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility. they have such violence in holland, but rather than duking it out amongst one another, 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." then, if the youngster was really bad, they'd put him in a sack and take him back to spain. "wait a minute! " "saint nicholas would kick you?" "well, not anymore," oscar said. "now he just pretends to kick you." he considered this to be progressive but in a way i think it's almost more perverse than the original punishment. "i'm going to hurt you but not really."

while eight flying reindeer are a hard pill to swallow, our christmas story remains relatively dull. santa lives with his wife in a remote polar village and spends one night a year travelling around the world. if you're bad he leaves you coal... if you're good, and live in america, he'll give just about anything you want. we tell our children to be good and send them off to bed where they lie awake, anticipating their great bounty. a dutch parent has a decidedly tastier story to relate, telling his children: "listen... you might want to pack a few of your things together before going to bed." "the former bishop of turkey will be coming tonight, along with six-to-eight black men. they may put candy in your shoes, they might stuff you into a sack and take you to spain or they might just pretend to kick you. we don't know for sure, but we want you to be prepared".

this is the reward for living in holland. as a child you get to hear this story and as an adult you get to turn around and repeat it. as an added bonus the government has thrown in legalised drugs and prostitution. so what's not to love about being dutch?!»