The Legend of Santa Claus
I was told if I wanted to find Santa I should come here -- it's a sports center on the outskirts of Amsterdam, temporary headquarters of the Dutch Santa Claus Foundation. They were right! Everywhere I turn there are men gluing huge white beards onto their faces and pulling on red gowns and large ecclesiastical hats. They don't look like my idea of Santa...more like bishops. Gradually, I find out why.
St. Nicholas, the 4th century Bishop of Myra in Turkey, was quite a character it seems. Legend has it that when he was born he stood up and said thanks to God for a safe arrival -- precocious, eh? Apparently in later life he brought three children back from the dead after they'd been cut up by a local butcher. Back in the fourth century they loved this sort of stuff, especially the Dutch. The story lines became ever more ridiculous...he'd jump on his horse and ride across the rooftops with his helpers delivering presents down chimneys. An edge of menace was added.
This explains why mixing in with all these Dutch Santas are characters with sooty faces and black curly wigs. Black Pete is supposed to Santa's African slave. It's not very politically correct. Throughout the morning Santas and Black Petes stream out of the building to cheers and song
As part of my training, Chief Santa Henry van der Krone takes me on his rounds. With his booming voice, flowing beard and bishop's miter Henry's frankly a bit scary, but the kids love him.
I watch Henry for tips. Everywhere he goes he's welcomed with singing.
After visiting about 20 homes we finally get back to headquarters and it's time to see if I can look the part. I'm brought a costume. First, a frilly smock...
Then the bishop's cape and purple gloves and finally...
Afterwards, I asked Henry how I looked.
So now you know what I'll be doing next Christmas. All I've got to do in the meantime is learn to speak Dutch! And there I should end but I've got a confession to make. You see I came here looking for more than just Santa.
When I was a schoolboy I heard the most amazing stories about Amsterdam's red light district and how the prostitutes paraded their wares in shop windows. Now to an oversexed spotty teenager this sounded like Christmas. I vowed on the plane to check the story out. But wandering 'round Amsterdam I'd put the matter to the back of my mind. I was soaking up the atmosphere recording nice sounds...like this Santa Claus and his dancing band of Black Petes.
Then strolling from canal to canal I found this old church with wonderful chimes. For 10 minutes I stood listening, entranced...
....when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed in a brightly lit door window opposite this woman jiggling around in just her undies! I turned and suddenly realized these half-naked women were everywhere. The stories were true. I was shocked. It wasn't even tea-time. It wasn't very titillating. A bit of an anti-climax actually. Let's just say the anticipation was better than the reality. But then Christmas can be like that can't it!
From Amsterdam, this is Martin Stott, Santa in training, for The Savvy Traveler.
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