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Chuck Brooks column: The legend of Sinterklaas

It's time for the fourth and final guest writer, Ghislain Devlaminck, our friend from Belgium. Ghislain and his parents became a part of America in 1949 before he was 2 years old. A former Navy man with a technical engineering degree, soon to celebrate 40 years of wedded bliss, Gish introduces us to the Belgian version of Santa Claus this week. I can't think of a better way to kick off the December columns! Thanks, Gish!

In Flanders, Belgium, Sinterklaas comes on Dec. 4 to evaluate children's behavior. The next evening, with his assistant Zwarte Pete (Black Pete), he comes to deliver gifts the children will find the next morning on Dec. 6, St. Nicholas Day. Sinterklaas is a chubby scatterbrained guy who wears a red suit and has a big white beard. He rides up from Spain on a horse with Zwarte Pete who does the navigating and makes the runs up and down the chimneys to deliver the presents. He is black because he's covered with soot from shimmying up and down the chimneys.

Born in Kortrijk, West Flanders, Belgium, I came to a southwest Minnesota prairie farm with my parents in September 1949 at the age of a year and half. Until first grade, my parents held onto our Flemish holiday traditions.

At about 4 years old, I was told by my parents Sinterklaas doesn't come to America because his helper, Zwarte Pete, has no interest in crossing the frigid North Pole and his horse can't tolerate the polar cold. The story of Santa Claus was not an option because he came to America 19 days too late.

Somehow my parents had made special arrangements with Sinterklaas to deliver our gifts and treats early to my grandparents, uncles and aunts in Belgium. This gave them extra time to mail the stuff to my sister and me in Minnesota. Mom had two pairs of colorful wooden shoes on the piano, and on the evening of Dec. 5, they would be set by the front door. In the morning, we would find the shoes filled with Belgian chocolates and cookies. Sitting next to the shoes would be several boxes with strange postage stamps. The boxes contained children's books, puzzles, dolls, small wooden barn animals, etc.

Starting first grade, I could not speak English and the Sinterklaas visit became a problem. My folks always spoke Flemish at home and all those books from Sinterklaas were written in Dutch, which also didn't help me learn English. Written Flemish and Dutch are the same, but the spoken words sound different. It's like the difference between a Boston and Southern accent in America. But, in first grade, I had to learn English quickly due to the intolerance of the nuns.

When the gifts had arrived on St. Nicholas Day, my English had gotten good enough to brag to the other kids at school that I had already received my presents from Sinterklaas! They didn't know who Sinterklaas was, but when I told them he was a fat guy with a big white beard in a red suit they said, "Oh, you mean Santa Claus." Some of them got mad because they didn't think it was fair for me to get my gifts early.

The local American Legion Ladies Auxiliary asked Santa to come to town a couple weeks before Christmas. As soon as school let out that day, we scurried at top speed to the Legion Hall. Because there was a couple of Lutheran families in town whose kids attended a public school in the neighboring town, Santa's visit was held in the neutral territory of the Legion Hall. It would have been too traumatic for those Lutheran children to come to the Catholic Church basement.

Some of the other kids were staring at me while I was waiting in line to meet Santa. They knew I had already gotten my stuff. Was I going to ask Santa for seconds?

Our farm neighbor, Mrs. Baert, one of the Auxiliary ladies noticed the distressed expression I was carrying. She suggested I go outside for some fresh air, so I wouldn't have to talk to Santa.

After the event, Mrs. Baert must've spoken to my parents. In second grade, Santa came on Christmas Eve but with presents from Belgium. We now also had a Christmas tree provided to us free through the generosity of the federal government, but that is a story for another time.

Ultimately, going to school ended the old Flemish tradition of Sinterklaas, but I still have fond memories of him, Zwarte Pete and everything connected to them years later. And for that, I'm genuinely grateful.

***So ends the November month of guest columnists. Thank you again to John, Scott, Linda and Gish for brightening our reading world for four weeks! However, the party is over now. I'm returning next week. You've been warned! Ho, Ho, Ho!