Hard Times for Memes

Ton Maas (tonmaas@xs4all.nl)
Sun, 21 Dec 1997 14:52:12 +0100

Message-Id: <v03102808b0c2c6efc8c9@[]>
In-Reply-To: <34999A65.7EFE@catskill.net>
Date: Sun, 21 Dec 1997 14:52:12 +0100
To: memetics@mmu.ac.uk
From: Ton Maas <tonmaas@xs4all.nl>
Subject: Hard Times for Memes

The tragedy of the Sinterklaas meme.

As some of you may know, the patron saint of the city of Amsterdam in the
Netherlands is St. Nicholas (Sint Nicolaas), formerly bishop of Myra in
what is now called Turkey. After the christening of the Netherlands, this
holy man took over from some pagan mid-winter character and became a
bringer of gifts. The protestants tried to get rid of him (along with the
Easter Hare and a few others) beause they were considered "papal
fallacies". Little did they know these cats go way back - long before the
invention of catholics. But enough about that. These days most Dutch people
refer to this mythological figure as "Sinterklaas" and he is supposed to
ride the roofs of their houses on his white horse, with his long white
beard and his long red frock, in the company of "Zwartepieten" (Black
Peters). In the seventies, when a considerable number of blacks from
Surinam - a former Dutch colony - came to the Netherlands, protests were
voiced at the racism that was though to be implicit in this mockery of
blacks. Little did most people realise that Zwartepieten have nothing to do
with race or racism. Their faces are smeared with sut from the fires of
Purgatory. They are the souls of sinners who - as penalty - have to serve
the Hole Man in his annual bringing of earthly goods. Dutch children are
still taught to place their shoe by the chimney at night (on the eve of
Dec. 6) and make an offering of typical food for Sinterklaas' horse. If
they have behaved well during the past year, Sinterklaas will reward them
with ample gifts. On the downside, there is a persistent rumour that if
they did *not* behave properly, the Zwartepieten may come and take them
away in a big bag, all the way to Sinterklaas summer palace in Madrid.
Critical believers should see straight through this sham - since we all
know that Saint Nicholas came from Turkey and that the Spanish/Moorish
connection has been exposed as a silly misunderstanding - but you know how
it is with believers: they prefer to believe.

Some centuries ago Dutch emigrants went to the US and brought with them
their tradition of "Sinterklaas". However - in the absence of proper
cultural embedding of the myth - the "Sint" was gradually transformed into
another white-bearded and red-frocked figure called "Santa Claus", but one
who rode a sled with reindeer instead of a white horse, with no black
peters anywhere in sight and with a slightly altered calendar: not Dec. 6
but Dec. 25.

When large numbers of Americans came back to Europe to help fight the
Nazi's, they brought with them this tradition of Santa Claus. To most
Europeans this was simply a new character, one which they gradually became
accustomed to and learned to like. But to the Dutch, this was an anomaly.
They were a bit suspicious of the new guy, since he bore an uncomfortable
resemblance to Sinterklaas, although he pretended to be a different person.
For some time the Dutch authorities managed to keep things strictly
separated. Sinterklaas "officially" arrived in Holland in mid-November and
had to leave the day after his birthday, on December sixth, while Christmas
shopping was not supposed to start until after Sinterklaas had left -
either to Madrid or to Myra. But with the Christmas shopping spree
vigorously expanding backward in time in all neighboring countries, it
won't be long until Sinterklaas and Santa Claus will tragically run into
each other in the streets of Amsterdam. What will happen? Who knows? They
may negate each other as matter and anti-matter, leaving a big mythological
crater, or Santa may decide to sue Sinterklaas for infringement of
ownership or copyright. After all he's an American and we all know how
Americans tend to deal with such matters :-)

Merry Christmas & Happy Newyear!


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