Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Jan Steen's Gift and Sinterklaas

It was on a cold, wintery night, exactly a month ago, that my family stood before the fireplace singing songs to Sinterklaas, otherwise known as Saint Nicholas.  It was December 5th, the eve of Saint Nicholas' Day and, like Dutch families the world over, we were celebrating the arrival of the gift bearing saint from his home in Spain. Suddenly: "Boom", "Boom", "Boom": Someone was thumping loudly on our front door.  Normally this would have caused some apprehension among my children. Instead, they shrieked with happiness and ran towards the sound of the commotion, pulling the front door open wide to reveal the darkness and two very full sacks stashed with gifts.  The children called into the night: "Thank you Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) and Thank You Zwarte Piet (Black Peter)".

Then the loot was lugged into the living room.

And the gifts were arranged in a pile on the living room floor, to the cat's delight.

Each gift came with a long poem, penned by the saint himself, comenting on the children's behaviour throughout the year, adding a commendation here, a light-hearted reprimand there. The scene that then ensued was one that connects with scenes in Dutch households, stretching back across centuries.  Take the following painting, for instance, by Jan Steen.

Jan Steen: Feast of St. Nicholas, 1665-8.

Steen was a genius at painting household interiors.  In Dutch the saying "a Jan Steen household" still refers to a household that is invariably in a state of untidy confusion, much like mine. But his Feast of Saint Nicholas, painted between 1665 and 1668 and housed today in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, is one of his most beloved works.  It is astounding how it depicts traditions that are as alive and well in the 21st century as in the 17th century.  Sinterklaas has just been to visit this family.  The little girl in the foreground is delighted with her gifts; her bucket is filled with sweets, nuts and other goodies and she clutches her doll possesively as her mother streches out her hands in a loving gesture.  Most experts agree that the doll respresents St. John the Baptist.  To the left of the little girl her older brother is weeping and his elder sister is holding up his shoe, revealing the source of his tears - there is a birch-rod, instead of sweets, in his shoe, a severe reprimand.  Saint Nicholas is aware that he has been a bad boy.  But nevermind, Steen doesn't want the story to end with sadness. To the right of the elder sister Granny beckons the boy, some gift or other has been hidden behind the curtain.  The boy will have learned his lesson, but will still get his toy. Another boy holds a baby in his arms and is pointing up the chimney: "Look, that how Sinterklaas came in". A younger boy is gazing up the chimney in wonder. In the centre of the picture sits the Dad and in front of him stands another boy who is pointing with a smile at his distressed older brother.  This child is staring straight out of the canvas, past his mother's gaze, and looks directly at us.  His is the point of entry, inviting us into the tableau, making us a part of the cosy (the Dutch would say "gezellig"), family scene. We are invited to be included in the celebration, and this is Jan Steen's gift to us, a gift to be still enjoyed nearly 350 years later. In the foreground of the picture we see a number of items that make up the paraphernelia of how Dutch familes still celebrate this family festival, nuts spilt on the floor, almond cakes and cookies containing ginger and other spices from the Indies.

Only the types of gifts that Saint Nicholas bears have changed.  My children were happy with their CDs, nintendos, Wii games, handbags and jackets.  By the end of the evening the living room, with its mountains of discarded wrappings, looked like it had been the scene of a riot, a truely Jan Steen household. Luckily, there wasn't a birch-rod in sight.  And most importantly, it had been "gezellig".

No comments:

Post a Comment