Sinterklaas in Cefalù


Every day at noon, the carillon of one of the churches in Cefalù plays a melody I have known since childhood as a Sinterklaas-song. This is slightly disconcerting. I have never heard this melody at any other time of the year but the weeks leading up to 6 December, the Good Holy Man’s birthday. Every Flemish and Dutch reader will understand – when you’re enjoying a midday swim in the Tyrrhenian Sea in July, the last thing you expect to hear is “Zie ginds komt de stoomboot…” It’s like Wagner’s Bridal Chorus at a kindergarten picnic. Like Penderecki’s Requiem at a Caribbean salsa party. It is confusing, to say the least. After a bit of googling, I found out that the melody in question is actually the first minuet from the Haffner serenade, written by Mozart in 1776. About half a century later, the Dutch teacher and poet Jan Schenkman wrote the lyrics that Flemish and Dutch children still sing today, hoping for presents dropped into their ”klompjes” – their clogs, carefully positioned near the fireplace. This is not the only popular version of this melody. In German, it has been turned into a song praising spring: “Im Märzen der Bauer…” Now I understand the extent of Germans’ bewilderment when confronted with a particular Norwegian Christmas carol that combines the melodies of two German songs, one of them singing about a wood auction in Grunewald, the other about somebody’s grandmother who rides a motorbike in the chicken coop. Norwegians made a Christmas carol out of this? How did that happen? Germans get even more puzzled when they learn that the content of this particular Norwegian song is miles off the traditional Christian message. It is about a quite glum Nisse – a troll-like figure – who sits in the barn and scares away the rats. The only time the word “peace” pops up in the lyrics, is when the Nisse cries out he wants to be left alone and eat his porridge in peace. Imagine the bewilderment of those same Germans when they hear one of their most traditional Christmas carols, O Tannenbaum, sung with Norwegian lyrics about a cheerful bus driver. Zie ginds komt de stoomboot, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Who would have guessed. By the way, in Flanders, the motorcycling grandmother from the German chicken coop is transformed into a granny who owns flowery toilet paper and other interesting attributes; she is a very modern woman indeed. So you have to be flexible when you’re out in the real world, and be prepared for strange coincidences shaking even your most tender childhood memories. It makes one wonder, though: if we are so profoundly conditioned by childhood songs, what about the prejudices we grow up with? Can we ever get rid of them completely? I think we can, but it takes time and effort.

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march, 2023

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