THE BAG OF SAINT NICHOLAS
Written by Bert Plomp
The celebration of Saint Nicholas at our home always had a high ‘Toon Hermans content.’ Because the birthday of the holy man had low priority for my parents, this sympathetic saint never appeared among us. My parents, in general, disliked saints of Catholic origin. This, despite the fact that my mother’s mother was, indeed, Catholic.
When I eventually discovered that Saint Nicholas didn’t exist, it wasn’t a major disappointment for me. My parents didn’t waste much time revealing the ‘hard truth’ to me and their other children, using it as an excuse to avoid putting much effort into celebrating Sinterklaas. It also saved them money.
Once my parents had debunked the good saint, it became a turning point for me to start doubting everything sacred to them. All those devout individuals within their Dutch Reformed community. I thought, let’s complete the ‘iconoclasm’ and give a good kick to all those ecclesiastical princes and leaders as well.
Luckily, we celebrated Saint Nicholas at school, and it was always very festive. With real Black Peters, not the artificial, overly sweet Saint Nicholas helpers nowadays. When Saint Nicholas and his Peters visited the school, there was always a slightly tense atmosphere among the children. Would you get a present, or would you get a tap with the rod? Mind you, in the sense of a corrective tap. It was a fun tension that Saint Nicholas’s visit brought. I received a tap from Black Peter a few times, but it was not a reason for me to seek spiritual guidance. It was just a well-intentioned action that brought a lot of laughter.
At our home, it remained a miserable display. Of course, this was mainly due to the financial situation. Still, I remember a time when my parents made an effort to create some coziness. This happened when we still lived on the third floor in Utrecht. Days before this Saint Nicholas celebration, there was something in the air. Something like: the children of the Plomp household can prepare for a celebration unlike any other. A celebration that could easily measure up to those at friends in the neighborhood, where Saint Nicholas usually went all out.
On the fateful Saint Nicholas evening, there was a vigorous knocking on the front door and furious ringing of the doorbell. I was scared to death. Along with the others, I immediately sought cover behind a few chairs and under the table. We feared that the Gestapo had returned. That this secret police had come back to take us down. Suddenly, all sorts of sweets flew through the living room. First a handful, then a large quantity, still half wrapped in a sizable paper bag. Apparently, the thrower was in a hurry, or the bag had simply slipped from their hand. After overcoming the initial shock, we eventually approached the door behind which the generous hand had disappeared. However, the person in question had disappeared. Arriving at the front door, a large burlap potato sack stared back at us. And behold, that sack was filled with gifts. While the others dragged the sack inside, I ran down the stairs to find the deliverer of the sack. Unfortunately, without success.
My parents didn’t like to spend the entire evening distributing and unwrapping gifts. Surprises and poems were definitely out of the question. That would only prolong the whole affair unnecessarily, and what can you possibly write down for such a bunch of unruly kids? So, the head of the household took charge of the contents of the sack. My father, who, as the breadwinner, automatically qualified as the head of the household, took a seat by the oil stove. He grabbed something from the sack, checked the address details, and threw the package to the intended recipient. He then emptied the contents of the sack at a murderous pace. The packages flew in all directions. One package was not even unpacked before the next one fell into your lap.
The yield per child consisted, first of all, of a sugar animal. An inedible, overly sweet, enamel-destroying treat. Next, a chocolate letter, which did not necessarily correspond to the initial letter of the recipient’s name. It was one of those genuine ‘last-minute’ chocolate letters. In other words, a letter that was almost unsellable. Namely, a Q, a U, an X, a Y, or a Z. To complete the assault on children’s teeth, each also received a marzipan doll. If you bit into it, your teeth would stick together. Finally, each received a practical gift, such as a pair of socks, a pair of mittens, or something similar. Even the dog Marsha won a prize. After the poor animal, with increasing interest and bated breath, had watched the ‘air traffic’ for minutes and repeatedly tried in vain to grab something, a package suddenly flew straight towards him. The four-legged creature was so bewildered that he devoured the thrown piece of horse sausage, packaging and all, in one go. Thus, no one else could lay claim to his legitimate portion.
The highlight of this special Saint Nicholas celebration, which did not last much longer than half an hour, was the solemn presentation of the main gift. Due to the fragility of the package’s contents, it was not delivered ‘by airmail’ for a change. It was a gift for the three brothers together. It was an electric toy train. This tiny train, with matching wagons, could only travel a very small circle due to the limited amount of included tracks. But hey, we were very small in size. With Blue Band stamps, my mother had managed to save up for this precious toy. All in all, it was a Saint Nicholas celebration of extraordinary magnitude. All previous and subsequent celebrations paled in comparison. Hence, this celebration is the only one that has stayed with me.