Markha Valenta: Saint Nicholas: The Hard Politics of Soft Myths

Roundup: Talking About History

[Markha Valenta holds appointments in the departments of history at the University of Amsterdam and of culture studies at the University of Tilburg. Her current work concerns the politics of religious diversity in relation to global urbanism, multiculturalism and secular democracy.]

May I tell you the story of Saint Nicholas´s yearly visit to Holland, but at a slant? A slant that takes account of real history to open up a space for real myth. Which is to say: for the politics of tradition as innovation. Precisely because folk-myths are different from policy. Policy is made by politicians, but folk-myths are made by the contradictions of history, a creature for which politics has no good name. Sometimes these flow to places we have yet to imagine, lead the way so to speak, open new doors. As happened one morning in Amsterdam: the day Saint Nicholas arrived. We spend much time thinking about social and economic politics, but the politics of social fantasy is just as engaging. If you are at first confused, please bear with me: it will become clear.

Every year, in this little corner of the world, for as long as anyone can remember, an ancient Turkish man arrives from far away, accompanied by a host of Berbers. One might think that this is because many Turks and Berbers have recently come to live here. But they hardly notice his arrival. Instead, it is the old-time natives who cheer, who call out, who sing. Political dignitaries put on their best finery to welcome the regally-dressed visitors and on television their every move is followed in the weeks to come. During the day, the Berbers will be seen here and there, climbing roofs, handing out sweets, doing tricks in their flashy livery while the wise old man rides through town on his white steed. Every few nights, families gather in their homes to create little shrines out of shoes filled with fruit, letters and bits of art, before which they sing, requesting a personal dispensation for their children. If the household is blessed, one of the Berbers will come in the night to gather up all the gifts and letters. Little presents and chocolate letters will be left in return. Discovering these in the morning, the families will call out their thanks to the honoured visitors for their kindness and generosity.

Slowly the tension builds. The great night is coming. In bed, children find it ever more difficult to close their eyes; during the day there is a buzz and a rush, with more sightings, more candy and little presents, a flitting Berber here and there. Until it is 5 December, the eve of the great man´s birthday. Everyone gathers together at home, eating ritual sweets filled with Indonesian spices, singing ritual songs. They are about to be visited. The children restlessly jump to look out the window, scouring the darkness outside with their eyes, their bodies bunching in tight excitement, desperate to catch some glimpse of movement. Then suddenly there is a terrifying banging on the door and spiced cookie-drops fly through the air. But at the door itself, nothing is to be seen except a flash of color, a dancing feather in a cap, a vague glimpse of a running Berber in the distance. While in front of the door itself stands a great sack filled with gifts and letters for everyone.

The letters will be personal, funny, sharp, biting, they will recall the year´s events, its mistakes and special moments and will convey a highly personal message from the ancient wise man and his helpers. They will be read aloud for all to hear, the gifts unwrapped, thanks given and more food eaten until it is deep night and time for bed. Then, while everyone sleeps, without fanfare or adieu the great man and his colourful company will return home just as his birthday dawns and life returns to normal....

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