Amy Sierra Frazier

Sinterklaas and the Swarte Piets

            “Okay, listen up guys, we have a plan. When Sinterklaas walks in through the front door with his Swarte Piets, we head out through the back door,” whispered Elly, the youngest and unruliest of the four Van Tiel children. Glenn and Cathy Sierra hovered closely around Elly in a tight-knit circle, looking surreptitiously over their shoulders, always on the lookout as if the Gestapo lurked around the corner ready to catch them dead in their tracks while “the trio resistance,” spearheaded by their leader Elly, meticulously devised a covert operation to sabotage the traditional Dutch Christmas festivities. The Van Tiel family had survived the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during WWII, but even after twenty years, memories of unmentionables were still too fresh in their minds to disclose to anyone within earshot, memories that continued to plague Mr. and Mrs. Van Tiel. Elly and her siblings, however, had been spared the atrocities of the Holocaust. They symbolized a generation of hope and a new beginning for the people of Holland. As time moved forward, memories of the war faded, and life in Holland returned to normal. People renewed their interest in practicing traditional Dutch customs once again, and in no time, they celebrated Sinterklaas Eve at fever pitch. Elly, the oldest of the trio and a native Dutch girl, took pride in explaining to Glenn and Cathy how the Dutch celebrated Christmas in Holland.

            Glenn and Cathy, two Mexican-American children from Texas, crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a cruise liner with their parents six months ago and landed in a country thriving with tulips, windmills, wooden shoes, and Gouda cheese. Their father Lou, a chief food inspector in the Army, received orders from his superiors to transfer from the military base in Norfolk, Virginia, to work in a Dutch dairy plant in Tilburg, Holland. Maria Ely, their mother, reeled from the seasickness that gripped her after angry waves and tempestuous sea storms rocked the ship like a baby cradle about to tip over. The journey proved taxing on Maria Ely’s constitution, so she spent most of her days lying in their cabin bed, valiantly attempting to recover from her seasickness. She tormented over leaving her mother and the Rio Grande Valley before crossing the Atlantic to an unknown place that was much different than the world she had been accustomed to. She had struggled outside the Valley to learn English when she married and practiced her newly-adopted language on her children, but now she confronted a new challenge to become familiar with people from a different country, who spoke a language foreign and unfamiliar from any language she had ever heard.

            “Daddy, why is Mommy in bed? Why doesn’t she come with us to the party?’ asked Glenn and Cathy. Every day, the ship’s crewmembers launched a matinee party to keep the children entertained and occupied during the week’s journey from New York City to Europe. Glenn and Cathy could hardly contain their excitement each day as their father escorted them into the ship’s huge ballroom, cheerfully decorated with bright-colored party balloons, streamers, and confetti where the children’s much-anticipated parties were held. All the boys and girls ate their fill of cake and ice cream and guzzled it down with either milk or punch. The children played dominos, checkers, pick-up sticks, jacks, marbles, or card games, and watched an endless array of Bugs Bunny and his Looney Tunes friends, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Yogi Bear, Popeye, and Casper the Friendly Ghost on the gargantuan movie screen.

            “Your mother is seasick,” said Lou.

            “What’s seasick?” asked the children. “Is the sea making Mommy sick?”

            “That’s a pretty good way of explaining it. Yes, children, the sea is making Mommy sick, so she needs to lie down for a while until she gets better. Okay?”

            “Okay, Daddy. How about we cheer her up and bring her some cake and ice cream?”

            “That’s probably not a good idea right now. Her stomach feels queasy.”

            “What’s queasy mean?” inquired Cathy, perpetually picking her father’s brain for answers with her infinite list of questions.

            “It means – if you give her the cake and ice cream, she is going to throw up, and we don’t want that to happen, do we children?” asked Lou patiently.

            “No, Daddy!”

            “I know, I know!” shouted Glenn, and raising his hand excitedly as if he had solved an equation to one of Einstein’s theories, he blurted out, “How about I grab everybody’s balloons and give them to Mommy? I know that’ll cheer her up!”

            “Negative, Private First Class Sierra. Plundering and looting other children’s treasures is a serious violation as cited in The Soldier’s Moral Code of Conduct Manual.

            “Huh?” asked Glenn, scratching his head, a humungous question mark stamped on his forehead.

            By the week’s end, the ship sailed smoothly through the English Channel without a hitch, veering up the North Sea and docking at the Port of Rotterdam. They arrived in Holland on a foggy morning in June, one month shy of Cathy’s birthday. From Rotterdam, they boarded a train and headed south-eastward to Tilburg.

            Three hours later, billows of smoke erupted from the chimney, and a piercing whistle announced its arrival to town as the train skidded into the station at a screeching halt. “We finally arrived, Amen!” affirmed Lou as he and Maria Ely carried out the luggage while Glenn and Cathy waited on the platform. The hustling and bustling activities at the train station opened the children’s eyes wide with wonder, “ohs!” and “ahs!” escaping their lips.

            An elderly couple stepped down from the train. The woman, dressed in a sable brown mink coat, her face framed with a brown, wool-felt, cloche hat adorned with a satin bow, carrying a black patent-leather purse and  matching pumps, and wearing black cashmere gloves, held her hand out as her husband carefully helped her descend the three-step ladder from the train to the platform. The man’s silver-gray hair and cobalt-blue eyes complimented the slate-gray tweed blazer he wore, his head crowned by a suede, tweed, driving cap, customarily worn by European men. Tucking her arm under his, they headed out together in one direction with purpose in their stride.

            A girl about six years old with blond pigtails and delft-blue eyes ran past Glenn and Cathy, heading straight into the arms of the elderly couple. “Oma! Opa! You came! You’re here!” exclaimed the girl with a radiant smile.

            “Of course, we did, my dear little Gretchen. We wouldn’t dream of missing your ballet recital,” said her grandmother with a sparkle in her eyes.

            Gretchen held out a bouquet of red, pink, orange, yellow, and white tulips and said, “These flowers are for you, Oma.”

            She caressed Gretchen’s cheek and then gave her an affectionate kiss on the forehead. “Dank je wel, Granddaughter. These have always been my favorite flowers.”

            “How’s my little pearl?” asked Grethchen’s grandfather, and after giving her a big hug, he said, “Reach into my right pocket, and you’ll find a little surprise.” Gretchen reached into her grandfather’s front pocket and pulled out a Wilhelmina Peppermint Roll.

            “Oh, Opa, thank you! You brought me my favorite mints!”

            “Don’t forget, I have another pocket on the other side.” Giggling, the girl reached inside the other pocket and pulled out a small package.

            “Speculaas! Ja Opa! You remembered to bring me my favorite cookies! Dank je wel, Opa.”

            “Why wait to eat Speculaas on December 5th to celebrate Sinterklaas Eve when we have good cause to celebrate right now on this momentous occasion to see our lovely, little granddaughter perform in her first recital,” gushed Gretchen’s grandfather proudly.

             Glenn and Cathy stood nearby as silent witnesses, hearing a conversation they could not understand, yet they understood gestures of love between family members. Spellbound by the sights and sounds surrounding them, they absorbed these moments like sponges on their first day in Tilburg.

            Six months passed since that incident occurred, and on the day before Sinterklass Eve, a delicious, spice-scented aroma filled the Van Tiel house as the women baked dozens of Speculaas and molded them into windmills and images of Sinterklaas. They also baked other traditional pastries, such as banketstaaf, Jan Hagel cookies, and kerstsol Christmas bread in preparation for the upcoming holiday. Glenn and Cathy eagerly awaited their first Dutch Christmas with the Van Tiel family.

            A few weeks ago, in mid-November during a family visit, Elly burst into the Sierra home, a three-story, brick building located on 24 Professor Donderstraat, and announced at the top of her lungs, “Sinterklass is coming to my house! Sinterklass is coming to my house, and this time, I’m on his good list, so I gotta get ready and put my special wooden shoes out by the window sill!”

            “Sinterklaas? Who’s Sinterklaas?” asked Cathy.

            “You don’t know who Sinterklaas is? Doesn’t he go to your house and give you presents in America?!” asked Elly. Several moments lapsed as she struggled to conjure up the American name of their dearly, beloved patron saint in the Netherlands.

             “Sounds to me like he’s a sinner-in-class,” interjected Glenn, who was always getting demerits for acting up and misbehaving in class badly enough that the principal called him into his office for his daily dose of corporal punishment. It wasn’t that Glenn was a bad boy; he was a little rough and tough around the edges, but he had a good heart, and with his adrenaline pumping at a fast, steady pace, he couldn’t keep still in class. With so many boys and girls to play and punch around, he saw school as one big, happy playground! “He sounds like my type of guy to pal around with. I’d like to meet him. Where’s his hangout?”

             “Oh, yes. Now, I remember. You call him St. Nicholas in America!” said Elly.

            “St. Nicholas?” wondered Cathy. She walked over to her father, who sat on the sofa in the living room, talking to Mr. and Mrs. Van Tiel as Maria Ely served them coffee and empanadas, and asked, “Excuse me Daddy, but who is St. Nicholas?”

            Lou looked up at his daughter, thought a moment, and then said, “Long, long ago, lived a man who gave presents to children and the poor folks. Back home in the United States, we call him Santa Claus.”

            “Santa Claus!” shouted Glenn and Cathy. “Santa Claus is coming to your house? We’ve never met him in person. Can we see him too?”

            “Yes, that’s why we came – to invite you over to our house when Sinterklaas comes to visit on Sinterklaas Eve!” said Elly. “Now, let me give you the run down on all the things you need to do before you meet him. First of all, you need to put your wish list beside your special, wooden shoes over by the window.”

            “Why do we have to put our shoes by the window?” asked Cathy.

            “Yeah, why would Santa Claus wanna come by and take a whiff of smelly, old shoes?” asked Glenn, scratching his head, but an idea soon came to mind that lit a smile on his face. “Well, you know the old saying, ‘Different strokes for different folks.’ I’m not placing judgment on the guy, but if that’s what he’s into, I’ve got a special pair fermenting in the closet.”

            “You put your special wooden shoes on the window sill so Sinterklaas can see them, and then he puts sweet treats like chocolate coins and pepernotens in your shoes, and if you’re extra good, he may even put little gifts in your shoes!” exclaimed Elly.

            “Candy? Really, Elly, CANDY?!” shouted Cathy. “I can’t wait! Mommy and Daddy bought me a pretty pair of wooden shoes the other day when we went out in the country to visit Mr. Van Heflin’s farm. It’s got pretty red flowers painted on them. I’ll go get them right now and put them in front of the window.”

            “Forget the wooden shoes and forget the candy,” said Glenn. “I’m aiming for the big gifts, so I’m putting my combat boots by the window!”

            Cathy ran to her room to get her new, wooden shoes, in a hurry to be the first one to place them on the window sill. “There now, I’m ready for those treats. Treats are really big back home during birthdays and Halloween, and around Christmastime, Abuelita always plans a family posada.”

             “Who’s Aboo-lee-da? asked Elly.

            “Abuelita is our grandmother.”

            “What’s a puss-eat-ah?”

            “A posada is when people get together and light a lot of candles, sing a lot of Jesus songs, and eat a lot of food; that’s my favorite part, especially all the candy,” said Cathy.

            “Forget the candy. I head straight for the meat. Daddy says I’m a meat and potato man!” boasted Glenn.

            “More like a Mr. Potato head who’s packed a whole lotta meat and manteca into his pansa!” ribbed Cathy.

            “Nothing wrong with this pansa,” said Glenn, beaming a Cheshire smile and rubbing his stomach like a Buddha. “It’s indescribable, like a Sherman tank!”

            “You mean indestructible, Bozo,” retorted his sister.

            Cathy recollected once again; “In Northfork, Virginia, Mommy and Daddy would mail our wish lists to Santa, who lives in the North Pole.”

            “Sinterklaas does not live in the North Pole,” said Elly.

            “Yes, he does,” insisted Cathy.

            “No, he doesn’t,” challenged Elly.

            “Then where does he live?” asked Cathy.

            “He lives in Spain.”

            “In Spain?!” chanted Glenn and Cathy.

            “Yes, in Spain. Every year around mid-November, he leaves his homeland with his Swarte Piets, sails north in his steamer, and arrives in one of our port towns.”

            “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s fart if it is true!” said Glenn. “Sounds to me like Ol’ Nic has a misdirection disorder!”

            “Who are the Swarte Piets?” Cathy asked intrigued.

            “They’re men from Africa who help Sinterklaas make the trip to Holland to visit all the boys and girls in the evening on December 5th. They help Sinterklaas pass out the presents to the children who are good and a bag of coal or rocks to the children who are bad, but sometimes, when children have been very naughty, Sinterklaas sends the Swarte Piets to their houses to spank them!” said Elly.

            “Have you ever seen a Swarte Piet spank anyone?” asked Glenn, beads of sweat forming on his forehead.

            “Only once. Last Christmas, one of the Swarte Piets managed to get a hold of me before I could bolt and gave me a good licking for accidently breaking my mother’s Waterford vase and for fibbing to her about it. The family ganged up on me, saying they were sure I had broken it, but I stood my ground and told them they had nothing on me but circumstantial evidence – not enough proof to convict a mosquito.”

            “So what happened? Why did you get a spanking?”

            “Actually, I got two spankings – one from my parents and one from that filthy Swarte Piet.”


            “They found the evidence stashed in my underwear drawer.”

            The whole time Glenn listened to Elly’s story, the more he began to see her in a new light and nodded at her as if they were kindred spirits.

            “But now, this is my year! I’m on Sinterklaas’ good side, and I’m planning to keep it that way!”

            “Okay, children. Put your coats on. It’s cold outside, and it’s beginning to snow!” said Lou. “We’re having dinner at Hansboggen Restaurant tonight. My treat to the Van Tiel family!”

            “Yay! We’re going to our favorite restaurant!” exclaimed Cathy. “They make the best loempias, nasi balls, and potato croquettes in the world!”

            “Amen to that!” said Glenn, smacking his lips in anticipation.

            The Sierra and Van Tiel families arrived at Hansboggen in two separate cars. As they entered the restaurant, Glenn elbowed Elly, “Ready to torpedo our way through another one?”

            “Not this time, Glenn. I’m bailing out of this one, so you’re on your own. I’ve made it this far to stay on Sinterklass’ good side, and I don’t want to blow my chances with him. Sinterklaas Eve is right around the corner, so if I can just hold out a little while longer . . . I’m done torpedoing my way through restaurants. I’m turning over a new leaf.”

            “Jeepers, creepers, Elly!” scoffed Glenn. “What’s happened to you? You’re not the same girl I first met. Where’s your sense of adventure? You and I torpedoed our way through every restaurant like nobody else could. You’re just no fun no more!”

            For a brief moment, the urge to torpedo and blast their way through another establishment overtook her determination to be ladylike and well-mannered, but the moment passed by quickly after she shook her head fiercely to regain her senses. She sat down at the long table that seated the two families: Lou, Ely, Cathy, and Glenn along with her father Wilhem, her mother Jeanne, and her siblings Wilma, Bert, and Kees. Seated between her mother and father, Elly asked her father permission to be excused from the table so she could wash her hands in the ladies room. Her father consented, and as Elly scooted her chair back, the waiter passed by with a huge tray of steaming, food platters held high above his head. Her chair knocked the waiter off balance, causing him to keel over and drop the plates that shattered on the floor. In an effort to regain his balance, he grabbed onto the curtains hanging by the window, next to the table, but the curtains tore in half and pulled the rod and finials off the brackets that knocked down a lit candelabra mounted on the wall, setting the curtains on fire. Elly’s face turned ashen as she watched the catastrophe unfold before her eyes in slow-motion camera.

            Red-faced with smoke practically coming out of his ears, Mr. Van Tiel glared at Elly and rued the day she was born, “#@%#, Elly!”

            “Wilhem, please, not here! Everybody’s watching. Remember what the doctor said about your blood pressure,” pleaded Mrs. Van Tiel.

            Three weeks after the fiasco, Sinterklaas Eve finally arrived at the Van Tiel home, and Elly, Glenn, and Cathy proceeded with their major sting operation.

            “Remember, gang, when Sinterklaas comes in with his Swarte Piets, we make a beehive for the back door,” reminded Elly.

            “Sounds like a full-proof plan to me, Elly. I’m with you all the way,” said Glenn, certain he was not on Santa’s list of favorites.

            Cathy, however, became ambivalent. She wanted to show her support and loyalty to the cause, but at the same time, she wanted to see Sinterklaas. The candies, the gifts, the Speculaas and all the delicious Dutch pastries beckoned her to rejoin the families, who had gathered in the living room, drinking eggnog and eating cookies. Lou and Mr. Van Tiel puffed away on Dutch Corona cigars, the women chirping about the special sales in the local HEMA department store.

            “Elly, I think you should consider not going through with the plan,” insisted Cathy. “What happened back at Hansboggen was an accident. The waiter only suffered a sprained ankle and second degree burns on his hands when he tried to put the fire out. The damage inside was minimal. Nobody faults you for what happened, and I’m sure Sinterklaas won’t hold it against you.”

            “Look, Cathy. You don’t understand. Sinterklaas and his henchmen are coming over any minute now, so I’m not taking any chances. Go back and be with the families if you want to; I won’t hold it against you. This is your first Christmas in Holland. Go and enjoy the festivities,” urged Elly.

            “Defector aborting mission! Defector aborting mission! We are now shifting into backup plan,” said Glenn, speaking into an imaginary walkie-talkie.

            “Ding dong! Ding dong!” the front doorbell rang.

            From the back of the house where the children were, they could hear a loud booming voice saying, “Ho! Ho! Ho! Vrolijk kerstfeest! And how is everyone doing this evening? Where are all the boys and girls I’ve come to visit today?”

            Ears pointed on alert and heart beating a million miles a minute, Elly whispered loudly, “You hear that?! They’re here! Time to make our escape!”

            “Wait, Elly. Don’t go!” pleaded Cathy but too late. The door slammed behind them.

            Glenn followed Elly in fast pursuit, but as he rounded a corner of the house, Gasper, the family goose, surprised him, “Honk! Honk! . . . Honk! Honk!” Bobbing his head frantically at Glenn and flapping his huge, white wings, Gasper aimed at him with his sharp, yellow beak.

            “Elly! Help, Elly!”

             From behind, Elly yanked him away from Gasper’s menacing advances and headed toward the gate. She opened the gate, and outside stood two Goliath-like Swarte Piets, staring down at them!

            “Going somewhere?” asked one of the Swarte Piets.

            The Swarte Piets brought in the two delinquents into the living room before the spectators like two handcuffed criminals about to face Judgment Day.

            “Well, well, well, what do we have here? Are these the two escape artists you told me about?” asked Sinterklaas.

            “Mr. Sinterklaas, sir, I can explain everything! You see, it was an accident. I scooted my chair back because I wanted to wash my hands, but the waiter with his dishes and the curtains set on fire and . . . and . . . It was all a misunderstanding! . . . Darn it, and I came so close – almost made it all the way through on your good list . . . Okay, okay . . . I’m ready to face my punishment,” lamented Elly, bending her backside over to allow a Swarte Piet a good swipe with the paddle.

            “Punishment? What punishment?” asked Sinterklaas. “It says here on the good boys and girls list: treats and toys for Elly, Glenn, and Cathy.”

            “Me too?!” asked Glenn, bowled over and about to pass out from sheer shock.

            “You too, big boy!” said Sinterklaas.

            Each of the three Swarte Piets handed over a bag of gifts to each child. Everyone cheered and sang Dutch Christmas carols. Mr. Van Tiel handed Dutch Corona cigars to Sinterklaas and his Swarte Piets, thanking them for their visit with a firm handshake while slyly slipping cash in each hand. Sinterklaas Eve was a huge success that year in the Van Tiel home among family and friends. Everyone raised a glass to offer a toast, wishing each other a Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, and Vrolijk Kerstfeest.

            Cathy turned to Glenn and said, “I like living in Holland. We get to celebrate a Dutch Christmas today, an American one in a few days, and a Feliz Navidad after that – three Christmases! You know what that means, Glenn? More presents and more candy!”

            “Forget the candy, Sis. I’m asking Santa for a bazooka gun. Now that I’m on this side of the pond, I’m on the prowl for a Nazi goose!”



amy sierra frazier


Amy Sierra Frazier was born in Brownsville, Texas, but spent years in Holland and Japan, absorbing European and Oriental cultures as a child. Her Hispanic ancestral roots span nearly four hundred years, crossing both sides of the Rio Grande River between Texas and Mexico. She has a BA in English from Pan American University in Brownsville and an MA in English from the University of Texas at Brownsville. She is a published author of “The Threshold” and currently teaches as a lecturer at the University of Texas at Brownsville.



© The Acentos Review 2013