This is long overdue, but it’s been that kind of year already!
In elementary school we learned about Christmas celebrations around the world. From the German ‘tannenbaum’ to the Mexican ‘poinsettia,’ we learned of traditions from across the globe. Of course we learned about the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) and the filling of klompen (clogs). We even learned about Sinterklaas’ helper, Zwarte Piet.
So you can imagine my surprise to learn that Sinterklaas has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas. It is its own holiday season each year culminating in a celebration on Sinterklaas’ birthday, December 5th. This year was my first true Sinterklaas celebration, and boy, was I in for a lot of surprises.
Somewhere in the middle of November, Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands by steamboat from Spain. He arrives at one of many ports around the country then spends the next few weekends arriving in smaller towns and villages throughout the Netherlands. His boat is packed with presents and hordes of Zwarte Pieten. It’s really more of a flotilla or small armada – there’s never just one boat. (I’m not here to weigh in on the controversy of Zwarte Piet. I’m not Dutch, and I’ll gladly leave that to them. But if you’re interested in learning more, just google ‘Zwarte Piet.’)
Once on land, Sinterklaas mounts his trusty white steed, Amerigo, and sets out with the hordes of Zwarte Pieten to bring joy and pepernoten (tiny gingerbread-like cookies) to the excited children (and adults).
Over the next few weeks, children set their boots or shoes next to the hearth or radiator each night in hopes that Sinterklaas will visit and leave them goodies. Sinterklaas does not visit every night, but randomly. You never know when you’ll wake up to a surprise! But it certainly helps to get in the spirit by singing Sinterklaas liedjes (songs) and leaving out a carrot for Amerigo.
The culmination of the season is December 5th, also known as pakjesavond (present evening). Families typically gather for dinner and wait for that fateful sound of Zwarte Piet banging on the door or windows and ringing the doorbell maniacally. A rush to the door is rewarded by a pile of goodies, but no sign of the wily, mischievous Zwarte Piet. Children excitedly open their gifts, but must be sure to say, “Dank u, Sinterklaas,” when all is said and done.
Adults have their own traditions surrounding Sinterklaas. Exchanged gifts are usually anonymous and accompanied by or enclosed in a special handmade surprise. These handmade surprises are typically humorous or appropriate creations that reflect the personality or hobbies of the person receiving the gift. For instance, I made a soccer shoe to ‘house’ the gift I gave to a friend this year. He is a soccer player and enthusiast.
The most challenging aspect, however, is the gedichtje (poem) written to accompany the gift and surprise. This poem is from ‘Sinterklaas’ and addresses the recipient. These can be humorous, thoughtful and sometimes teasing. Writing a poem in your own language is difficult enough, so you can imagine the feelings of stress and inadequacy this task generated for me. Overall, pakjesavond can be a lot of work for adults, but it’s also playful and fun!
There are only two aspects of Sinterklaas that I found a bit disheartening: 1) the Dutch find it very odd to put up a Christmas tree before the Sinterklaas celebrations have ended, i.e. December 6th. And to me, a Christmas tree should be put up immediately following Thanksgiving; and 2) Santa Claus is really downplayed at Christmas. He is called Kerstman (Christmas man) and might bring small gifts, but many children don’t believe in him from the start. Since that’s always been such a magical part of Christmas for me, and I tend to be overly festive at the holidays, those differences will be challenging for me.
So with that said, I’ll just be over here celebrating both holiday seasons to the fullest! If you don’t like it, I don’t care! 🙂