I’m a big David Sedaris fan.
I am also a big fan of the Holidays.
And when these two intersect, I must blog about it.
The following is an excerpt from his piece, 6 to 8 Black Men. The full version is here. The last paragraph is my favorite, but it can’t be fully appreciated until you’ve heard the rest. (Also, the last paragraph of the full version is brilliant, too, but you have to have read the first three paragraphs to understand it. And they’re funny. In fact, it’s all funny. Go see what I mean.)
I recommend reading it in its entirety.
I recommend even more listening to it in its entirety.
Really. I’ve even put the audio right here:
Don’t miss it.
“When do you open your Christmas presents?” is another good conversation starter, as it explains a lot about national character. People who traditionally open gifts on Christmas Eve seem a bit more pious and family oriented than those who wait until Christmas morning. They go to mass, open presents, eat a late meal, return to church the following morning, and devote the rest of the day to eating another big meal. Gifts are generally reserved for children, and the parents tend not to go overboard. It’s nothing I’d want for myself, but I suppose it’s fine for those who prefer food and family to things of real value.
In France and Germany, gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve, while in Holland the children receive presents on December 5, in celebration of Saint Nicholas Day. It sounded sort of quaint until I spoke to a man named Oscar, who filled me in on a few of the details as we walked from my hotel to the Amsterdam train station.
Unlike the jolly, obese American Santa, Saint Nicholas is painfully thin and dresses not unlike the pope, topping his robes with a tall hat resembling an embroidered tea cozy. The outfit, I was told, is a carryover from his former career, when he served as a bishop in Turkey.
One doesn’t want to be too much of a cultural chauvinist, but this seemed completely wrong to me. For starters, Santa didn’t use to do anything. He’s not retired, and, more important, he has nothing to do with Turkey. The climate’s all wrong, and people wouldn’t appreciate him. When asked how he got from Turkey to the North Pole, Oscar told me with complete conviction that Saint Nicholas currently resides in Spain, which again is simply not true. While he could probably live wherever he wanted, Santa chose the North Pole specifically because it is harsh and isolated. No one can spy on him, and he doesn’t have to worry about people coming to the door. Anyone can come to the door in Spain, and in that outfit, he’d most certainly be recognized. On top of that, aside from a few pleasantries, Santa doesn’t speak Spanish. He knows enough to get by, but he’s not fluent, and he certainly doesn’t eat tapas.
While our Santa flies on a sled, Saint Nicholas arrives by boat and then transfers to a white horse. The event is televised, and great crowds gather at the waterfront to greet him. I’m not sure if there’s a set date, but he generally docks in late November and spends a few weeks hanging out and asking people what they want.
The words silly and unrealistic were redefined when I learned that Saint Nicholas travels with what was consistently described as “six to eight black men.” I asked several Dutch people to narrow it down, but none of them could give me an exact number. It was always “six to eight,” which seems strange, seeing as they’ve had hundreds of years to get a decent count.
The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid-fifties, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves they were just good friends. I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet times beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility. They have such violence in Holland, but rather than duking it out among themselves, Santa and his former slaves decided to take it out on the public. In the early years, if a child was naughty, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would beat him with what Oscar described as “the small branch of a tree.”
“Yes,” he said. “That’s it. They’d kick him and beat him with a switch. Then, if the youngster was really bad, they’d put him in a sack and take him back to Spain.”
“Saint Nicholas would kick you?”
“Well, not anymore,” Oscar said. “Now he just pretends to kick you.”
“And the six to eight black men?”
While eight flying reindeer are a hard pill to swallow, our Christmas story remains relatively simple. Santa lives with his wife in a remote polar village and spends one night a year traveling around the world. If you’re bad, he leaves you coal. If you’re good and live in America, he’ll give you just about anything you want. We tell our children to be good and send them off to bed, where they lie awake, anticipating their great bounty. A Dutch parent has a decidedly hairier story to relate, telling his children, “Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things together before you go to bed. The former bishop from Turkey will be coming along with six to eight black men. They might put some candy in your shoes, they might stuff you in a sack and take you to Spain, or they might just pretend to kick you. We don’t know for sure, but we want you to be prepared.“