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Another November-December story:

Old Memories of "Sinterklaas" (St. Nicholas)


      I would like to write about one of my most treasured memories from childhood, from the time I was still living in the Netherlands. That was about 70 years ago. I hope I can write about that time as well as I remember it.


    World War II was over in the Pacific on September 2, 1945 (Japanese surrender); in Europe all fighting ceased more or less on May 7-8, 1945. The Schaeffer family, consisting of my Mom (Nellie), Dad (Anthony) and myself (Fred) probably would not have celebrated a very extensive St. Nicholas (Dec. 6th) nor Christmas (Dec. 25th) in 1945. I do not precisely remember as I was only 5 years old at the time and there was much confusion after the end of the war, house we lived in being fixed up, again made livable, etc., then we moved in again and there were many shortages in food and other supplies. Five-year olds do not worry about such things; parents, however, do.


    In 1946, I do recall that things got considerably better, as I was sent to school ('lagere school' akin to 'grammar school'). I do remember December 6th of 1946, now in my 6th year, when we read in the paper that "Sinterklaas" would arrive by ship (usually a harbor tug) at Nijmegen's 'harbor' (on the Waal River) on a horse and disembark amid great festivity. In retrospect one could say, 'Oh that poor horse!' but as tradition goes there were also black knights, so-called "zwarte pieten", servants (remember, St. Nicholas lived in Myra, Spain, in 311 A.D., and most servants were Moors at that time). That would have been nice for a 6-year old, but in retrospect it was terrible for any black person to be portrayed in this fashion. For anyone to be portrayed as a servant is demeaning. Unfortunately that sort of thing keeps being shown. It's folklore. But let's get back to 1946.


    My parents loved making a big production out of these things, and my Dad, Antoon (Dutch for Anthony), or even shorter "Toon," had a special knack for organized chaos in a house with two broad spiral staircases, one on the side of the work or business area, and the other in the living quarters, a house which still stands on the south corner of the Van Welderen Straat where it meets the Bisschop Hamer Straat. Just think of it, I can see the window behind which I was born in 1940 all the way from Vero Beach, FL where I now live, 77 years later, without moving a foot! That's a technological wonder, thanks to Google (tm)! Last time I visited Nijmegen was in 1978 or thereabouts, even that is a distant memory.


    Antoon used to hang strings from the rather high second story landing of one of the grand staircases, so that the bottom of these strings came to hang eye-level with the person who stood on the floor below - and hung on these strings were wondrous poems which incorporated the location of the next present. For example, one might say, "a token of love in the attic by the window", or another "something to keep you warm this winter in the hall-closet" - of course this direction was very general, since there were several hall closets, and as far as the attic went, there were several rooms on the attic level that had windows. You get the idea. Now multiply these 'directions' by all the people and guests in the house, usually a dozen or more, and you get a stampede of people running in all sorts of directions to find their presents. Then, when these were found, it was customary to return to the central location and read the poem, unwrap the gift which usually was something funny, as nobody had any money in those days for very substantial gifts, or a hand-knitted shawl or something like that. It was a great deal of fun! Lots of laughter, and that was the idea. We had all come through a rather bitter time, five years of suffering in one way or another, and we needed laughter to get all these sad times out of our systems.


    Add to these festivities, a little bit of good liquor (Dutch Jenever perhaps?). Dutch Jenever is a Dutch gin made of juniper berries, I believe, and though Dad loved a good snort once in a while, he and his brother did not overdo it - which was to his credit. In those days, it was rather hard to get, I surmise.


    I recall that Mom liked all the attention on these Sinterklaas evenings, and loved the presents but she, having suffered greatly during the Second World War, still was rather sad about all that happened. I hope she enjoyed those days as much as we did. The main thing was that we were a cohesive family in those days. There was a lot of family fun when we were all together. What I recall was a wonderful church-going family, but the years after the war brought many changes to Dutch culture (even then) and about six years later we began to disperse to different places. Dad's eldest sister, Lidy, moved to South Africa (to become a Discalced Carmelite Nun); Mom, Dad and I, in 1954 moved to the United States. Others in my family moved to different towns in Holland. Some of Mom's family had moved to England, New Zealand, and so on. Antoon went to Heaven in 1963 (age 61), and Nellie in 1983, at the age of 81, and that was a while ago. I remember them dearly. They were good people. Sinterklaas of 1946 (and some of the following years) are happy childhood memories, and I thank the Lord for allowing me to remember them today.


    I hope you all have a close-knit family you hail from, or a close family now that you are all grown up. May the Lord bless you and keep you! Have a wonderful Advent preparing us all for a Blessed Christmas!

    Fred Schaeffer, OFS
    December 1, 2017


For a very in-depth look at the history of Nijmegen, the city I hail from, see: http://www.noviomagus.nl



A Gift of a New Life
A Biography
by Fred Schaeffer, OFS 2019

Secular Franciscan Order
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