Thursday, December 08, 2016
Amsterdam, NY ,


Alissa Scott Shown is a wooden clog filled with hay outside city historian Robert von Hasseln's office. This is a tradition that the Dutch partake in during the holiday season. Christmas morning, they would wake up to find treats in the shoe.

Alissa Scott Shown is a representation of what the early Dutch believed Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) and his servant Black Peter to look like.


Then and now: Amsterdam's early Christmas traditions

Tuesday, December 24, 2013 - Updated: 4:08 AM


'Tis the season for hanging wreaths, unwrapping presents and feasting, but for the earliest Amsterdamians, Christmas looked a bit different.

"You don't hear hoof beats," city historian Robert von Hasseln said of a typical Colonial Dutch Christmas. "You would hear chains. The first thing you hear is Black Peter trying to scare the children with his chains. Then, the door flies open and there's a scatter of goodies."

The Dutch began settling into the Mohawk Valley in the 1620s, bringing their holiday traditions with them from Holland. Unlike the modern-day Dec. 25 celebration, the Dutch began St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 5.

The Dutch women would lay a white cloth on the floor and the children would sit around it. The door would burst open and Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet -- St. Nick and his servant Black Peter, who are thought to have been from Spain -- would toss in candies and little gifts.

"One of the variants of the legend is if you're good, you get candies and goodies," von Hasseln said. "But, if you're bad, Black Pete would not only thrash you with the rod he carries, if you're bad, he'll put you in a burlap bag and take you back to Spain for a year so you can learn how to be a good kid."

They would sing poems and rhymes to Sinterklaas and Black Peter as the gifts were distributed.

"Sinterklaas, good holy man,/ Put your best red tabard on,/ Ride in it to Amsterdam,/ From Amsterdam to Spain!/ Apples come from Orange, pears from off the trees,/ Sinterklaas, come please," they might sing.

Before the children went to bed at night, they would leave their wooden clogs at the door, filled with hay for Sinterklaas' white horse he rides to their homes.

"In the morning they'd wake up and find that Santa Claus' horse would have come in and eaten the hay and they would have left some presents," von Hasseln said. "Sweets and some little things inside the shoes."

Then they would have what society not refers to as a Secret Santa gift exchange.

"You'd get a small little present from who-knows-who and it was particular to you, like something you liked or a hobby," von Hasseln said. "But there would also be a poem in there point out kind of jokingly some of your stranger habits or odder quirks. Nobody would know who the gift came from."

Then, in the 1660s, when the English invaded New England, they, too, brought their traditions -- albeit much less festive.

The English, being Protestant, believed Christmas was a Catholic holiday and they would have no involvement in it, museum director of Old Ft. Johnson Alessa Wylie said.

"They didn't have the trees," Wylie said. "They didn't do any of that. In England, the big thing to do was wassailing from house to house drinking. The old kind of bar hopping."

Wylie said they mostly spent the day in long masses at church.

"You can't find a lot of references to holiday celebrations," Wylie said. "I think it was a family thing. I think they visited friends and family and had dinner. Then they went to church. That was the extent. There weren't presents."

One reference Wylie was able to scrounge up was a letter dated Dec. 16, 1761 from William Corry, an Albany friend, who had invited Sir William Johnson to visit his home for the holiday.

"Christmas is a coming," Corry wrote. "And pretty good riding here, which will bring plenty of turkeys ... to town. Let me request you to come and take share of them."

The holiday season was celebrated at Old Fort Johnson with much feasting and drinking, Wylie said. Only an occasional invitation or seasonal greeting has survived.

Other 18th century correspondences, she said, make reference to William Johnson's son John and nephew Guy Johnson's "good nature and jovial hearts" during the holiday season.

New Years Day wasn't "really a big thing" to the English, von Hasseln said. In those days, different parts of the world lived by a different organization of the calendar. During the early settlement in Amsterdam, the English version of the calendar recognized March 1 as the start of the new year.

Wylie said, for the Dutch, New Year's was a much bigger deal, a day they spent wassailing.


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