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Frisian town welcomes ‘Sinterklaas’ in February
Local tradition kept away from limelight
GROU, the Netherlands - While North Americans get a visit from Saint Nick in the weeks ending with Christmas, the figure on whom Santa Claus is based - St. Nicolaas - visits the Low Lands on December 5th and 6th. Except in the small Frisian village of Grou, where Saint Nicholas’ ‘cousin’ Saint Peter makes his annual visit on February 21. Confused? Here is the story about ’Sint Piter’.
Early inhabitants of the Low Lands and others now called ‘heathens,’ performed tribal rites at the end of the cold season to try and persuade the spirits and gods to act favourably toward the community, its agriculture, fishing and livestock. As with many other polytheistic habits, rites and celebrations, the Spring Rites weathered the times, although the (Frisian) tribes themselves converted to Christianity through such evangelists as Boniface and Willebrord. In an effort to make these festivities its own, the Church rededicated the feast to a particular saint, in this case Saint Peter.
In the twelve or thirteen centuries since, the Saint Peter Fest was observed less and less, save for in Grou (and a few other villages in the province), perhaps because of its geographical isolation within a huge water-logged district. Adding to the local appeal is the fact that Saint Peter also serves as the patron saint of fishermen and bargemen, of whom there were many in Grou, where the local church also bears Peter’s name.
Until 1905, the ‘patron’ of the local Saint Peter Fest was depicted as someone whose walks through town were hampered by a heavy ankle chain and whose long, heavy coat was adorned with sweets. Children of the homes he visited were allow to pick some sweets from his coat, before Saint Peter continued to the next house to ‘deliver his presents.’
A local teacher ‘re-invented’ the tradition of Saint Peter, making him into a kind of mirror image of Saint Nicholas by calling him the brother of Saint Nicholas. According to the story, the two had an argument - in Friesland - with Saint Nicholas continuing on his gift-bearing visits and Saint Peter needing to return to Spain to restock his bags. Thus delayed, Saint Peter resumed his rounds to hand out gifts on February 21.
Grou’s Saint Peter wears a mitre and a tabard (or bishop’s mantle), has a crozier and a Moorish assistant, of course also named Black Peter or as they say in the Frisian language: Swarte Pyt but also Hantsje Plus. The only differences between Saint Nicholas and his ‘brother’ are that Sint Piter wears a white tabard (Saint Nick a red one) and that his beard resembles the one of Santa Claus.