It’s that time of year in Holland: there is only sunlight for about seven hours, the fall bok beers have been changed for hearty winter fare, and the entire country is engaged in a national debate about the racist overtones of a beloved childhood mascot. Yes, it’s Christmas time in Amsterdam! (Which looks even prettier with all the Christmas lights by the way, the above is my favorite set not too far from my apartment.)December in the Netherlands is dominated by Sinterklaas, a jolly old man who brings presents for all the good little jongens en meisjes in the Netherlands. On no accounts must you confuse him for his cousin Santa Claus however unless you want to hear a diatribe about how Santa is just a product of the Coca-Cola company- not true by the way, though the Dutch won’t believe you. The most important differences are that Sinterklaas comes from Spain on a steamship and rides a white horse named Amerigo and carries bad children back to Spain in his sack (I have yet to understand the true punishment in this exile), and most importantly his helper(s) are known as Zwarte Piet(en).
Zwarte Piet is a little black boy who these days is played by Dutchmen who dresses up in blackface and a curly wig, making this the only country I know of that seems to think this is still acceptable since, say, the 1920s. Dutch people will tell you that it’s not racist though because it’s a tradition and everyone loves Zwarte Piet, but don’t bother pointing out that everyone loves Uncle Remus too- it’s like shooting fish in a barrel in terms of how hard it is to start a heated dialogue about this.
Anyway, once we’re done with the Dutch national pastime of arguing about controversial issues it’s time for a much more important one: poking fun at the annual Sinterklaas party! Sinterklaas arrives each year on December 5 (meaning Dutch kids get their presents then, not at Christmas), but for bigger kids a bit of a Secret Santa ensues with a twist. Instead of only pulling someone’s name for a present exchange, the present itself is immaterial and what matters instead is the poem and wrapping that goes into the gift which should be a bit of a roast about the person. So for example a soccer player had to shoot a few goals, one fellow who’s had bad luck with the ladies had to undergo a speed dating course, a pianist got a miniature piano of construction paper… and I got a personalized pop-up book that you can see above (the cover is modeled after Sinterklaas’s book which holds the names of the good kids).
Now for the present I had to prepare, for those of you who don’t know me in the real world I happen to enjoy writing epic poems. So when I pulled Thijs, a fellow PhD who also works for our mutual adviser Ralph (who recently became department head and got rather busy as a result), there was only one option in my mind…
Many a great tale has been said
About those who watch the sky,
Of their great tribulations
When Sinterklaas comes by-
But of all these tales big and small
No greater story has been told
Than that of our valiant hero:
A man named Thijs the Bold.
It all began not long ago
On a day of pouring rain
And Thijs was sitting at his desk
Thinking hard, but in vain
He’d been a PhD for months
But was still none the wiser
Because he didn’t know what to do
Thanks to an absentee adviser.
“Where’s Ralph gone to?”
Thijs muttered, as he let out a sigh
“Oooh I know! Pick me!”
He heard a very small voice cry.
He looked about- no one in
But then he caught the creature’s stare
And said a pleasant hello
To Artie Aardvark sitting there.
You all know those in Ralph’s group
Get a stuffed aardvark when new
But I bet you didn’t know that
These creatures can speak too!
In fact they’re quite intelligent
Although a little shy
So you have to gain their trust
Before they’ll give talk a try.
“Oh noble aardvark,” our hero said
“Do you know where Ralph has gone?
Because ever since I’ve started here
He’s been awf’ly withdrawn.”
“I know Thijs! But it’s awful
Perhaps the worst case I’ve seen
Ralph’s been lured into a trap
By none other than the Dean!
“Deep within Old Amsterdam
Where the whores and tourists roam
That evil creature called the Dean
Has made his office home
He’ll book meetings with advisers
From that base of his reign,
But it’s a trap! Once they enter
No adviser’s seen again.”
“That’s not so bad,” said Thijs
But the aardvark shook his head-
“Alas if he’s not rescued soon
Ralph will surely be dead!
And then you’ll just keep sitting here
And leave without a degree
Because without Ralph you won’t know how
To get a PhD…”
“Well then,” said Thijs, “I’ll go at once
And spring him from this trap!
I’d like to graduate, and besides
He seems like a nice chap.
There’s just one problem Artie
I’m really still quite new
And saving Ralph from the Dean
Isn’t a thing I know how to do…”
Thijs sat there and pondered
For he’s a theorist obsessive
Who knows a lot of hard maths
That sound awfully impressive
“Of course!” he finally shouted out
When the wheels fin’ly clicked
To save Ralph I’ll resort to
A quantum mechanics trick!”
You know those stuffed aardvarks?
Each is exactly the same
And in quantum mechanics
Is a theoretician’s claim
That two particles, though separate
Can exchange information
So long as someone works out
The waveform’s calculation.
And if he knew one aardvark’s waveform, why
It would be the same as another’s
And then Artie could see instantly
What was seen by his brothers
And years ago, Thijs the Bold knew
Ralph gave an aardvark to the Dean
So he just needed to calculate a waveform
And then know what that fellow’s seen!
So Thijs the Bold got busy
And began scribbling on his paper
He worked all night furiously
To follow through with this caper
Then finally at the break of dawn
It was clear he was in the right vocation
For the paper on his desk contained
The Aardvark Waveform Equation.
“Oh! I can see the room!” Thijs heard
From the aardvark by his side
“But this trial won’t be easy
Based on what I see inside-
There are all sorts of traps and tricks
In a complicated scene
Plus at the end, of course
You’ll have to fight the Dean…
“Oh Thijs! I fear you’re not prepared
For what trials lie ahead
And you can’t exactly rescue Ralph
If you yourself are dead
If only there was someone to ask
Who could help us in our cause…
Wait! There’s one man who might help
Let’s go ask Sinterklaas!”
There was a good stroke of luck
For Artie’s friends with Amerigo
So to find Sinterklaas himself
The aardvark knew the way to go
So they set off for Old Amsterdam
Through the canals and winding streets
And found the horse and man swiftly
In a huge crowd of Zwarte Piets.
“Ah Thijs, it’s you!” Sinterklaas said
“I hear you’ve been good this year
So I can help and outfit you
With your quest’s needed gear
But first, a test! Beside me-
A magic sword mired in stone.
Can you pull it out? A worthy man
Can yank it out alone.”
[At this point Thijs found his present was a sword in a stone, and had to pull it out.]
“Hurrah!” said Thijs, “let’s go now!
And dank u, Sinterklaas!”
And our heroes ran into the night
On their respective feet and paws
And they ran into Old Amsterdam
To find the evil Dean’s lair
They found it quickly thanks to Artie
Whose brother told him where.
They came to a tall canal house
And snuck into the ground floor
But once inside their eyes opened wide
At terror to great to ignore
For at their presence stone gargoyles
Which had been silently watching sentry
Awoke, growled, and attacked
When our heroes made their entry!
“Look out!” the little aardvark cried
But Thijs the Bold was not afraid
He swung at those evil sentries
With his magic sword’s blade
He swooped and parried like a pro
And then with a final thrust
Each gargoyle was speared in the heart
And crumbled into dust!
So Thijs the Bold and Artie
Ran forward up the stair
And down the hall that they’d heard
Was the way to the Dean’s lair
And finally they found it:
A great door of polished wood
And when Thijs wrestled it aside
What he saw wasn’t good.
Here lurked the evil Dean creature
With sinister eyes shining bright
A lesser man under its stare
Would have surely died of fright
But not Thijs the Bold! He looked about
And knew what had to be done
He drew his blade as it attacked:
The battle had begun!
To describe the Battle of Thijs and Dean
Would go on for many pages
But it will suffice to just say this:
It was a battle of the ages
And in the end our victor
Hit the evil creature’s head
And the magic sword worked! The Dean fell
And was most definitely dead!
“Hoorah!” was Artie Aardvark’s shout
As Thijs ran and set Ralph free
And they ran back to Science Park
With great thanks from the detainee
But as they returned Ralph soon showed
The effects of the Dean’s last spell
For he forgot all that had happened
Which was probably just as well.
“Ah Thijs! I was looking for you!”
Was Ralph’s happy cry,
“I need some new calculations
That you ought to give a try
“I want those by tomorrow, please
And when you’re finished with that caper
By this time next week
I’d like to see the first draft of a paper…”
Our hero gave a huge sigh
For a present adviser’s a mixed blessing:
You’re on track to someday graduate
But your work is much more pressing
But this PhD took solace
In that he’d averted disaster
And Thijs the Bold, I have been told
Lived happily ever after.
Anyway, the poem went over rather well as I suspect it’s a rare guy who wouldn’t want to be in the center of a saga where he’s the hero, but I couldn’t post it until now because one spends the next few weeks after a Sinterklaas party trying to work out who did what. Things have all been worked out by now though, and my adviser quite enjoyed the poem too (although I might have an interesting time if I ever meet the Dean someday…).
Dutch Sinterklaas-time has certainly been an interesting one. I’m definitely looking forward to next year!