After living in the Netherlands for eleven years, I can finally claim to speak nearly fluent Dutch. Okay, granted, it’s not the most important language in the world, but having a mastery of Dutch means I can at last understand what Kris Kringle and the little Dutch girl say to each other in Miracle on 34th St.
(1947). This is my favorite scene in the film and never fails to jerk a few tears from me.
First, a little cultural background to explain the scene: Dutch children get presents from “Sinterklaas.” He arrives in the Netherlands a few weeks before the feast day of St. Nicholas (Dec. 6) and travels around the country, filling children’s shoes with candy and small toys at night while they sleep. According to Wikipedia, “This practice…came to the United States through the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam prior to the British seizure in the 17th century, and evolved into the hanging of socks or stockings at the fireplace.” When Dutch children set their shoes by the fireplace at bedtime, it’s considered very important to sing a Sinterklaas song. After all, you don’t get somethin’ for nuthin’. This is why Kris Kringle asks the little girl if she wants to sing a song for him. The song they sing in Miracle on 34th St.
is one of the simplest and best known of the Sinterklaas songs.
This film was released in 1947, just two years after the end of WWII. Rotterdam, one of the largest cities in the Netherlands, was heavily bombed by the Germans and its center leveled in a single night in 1940. (See photo below.) When the adoptive mother says the little girl is from Rotterdam, it calls all of this to my mind. Since I also know the difficulty of assimilating into a foreign country, I can’t watch this scene without choking up. I understand the little girl’s joy when Kris Kringle speaks Dutch to her. (I feel this same joy every time I return to the States and some porter at the airport says to me casually, “How ya doin’?” I just want to kiss him.)
Here’s the scene, with the dialogue between Kris Kringle and the little Dutch girl translated into English:
Well, young lady, what’s your name?
I’m sorry, she doesn’t speak English. She’s Dutch. She just came over. She’s been living in an orphan’s home in Rotterdam ever since… Well, we’ve adopted her. I told her you wouldn’t be able to talk to her, but when she saw you in the parade yesterday she said that you were “Sinterklaas,” as she calls you, and that you could talk to her. Well, I didn’t know what to do…
Kris Kringle to the little girl:
Hallo! Ik ben blij dat je gekomen bent!
(Hello! I’m glad you came!)
O, u bent
(Oh, you are
Ik wist dat u het zou begrijpen!
(I knew you would understand!)
Natuurlijk! Zeg maar wat je zou willen hebben.
(Of course! Tell me what you’d like to have.)
Niets. Ik heb van alles. Ik wil alléén maar bij deze lieve dame zijn.
(Nothing. I have everything. I just want to be with this nice lady.)
Wil je een liedje voor me zingen?
(Would you like to sing me a song?)
Kris & Girl:
Geef wat in mijn schoentje,
Geef wat in mijn laarsje,
Dank u, Sinterklaasje!
(Sinterklaas [untranslatable term of endearment],
Give me something in my shoe,
Give me something in my boot,
Thank you, Sinterklaas!)
In the remake of Miracle on 34th St.
, the little Dutch girl was replaced with a deaf girl, and Santa spoke to her in sign language. While this was touching, I think the whole idea of having Santa speak Dutch and sing the Sinterklaas song was to demonstrate that he was the real Santa Claus, who of course would know the languages and cultural traditions of every country where children believe in him, even a very small country like the Netherlands, which coincidentally (or perhaps not) is an important source of the American Santa Claus tradition.