Sinterklaas!

Today’s a big day for the children of the Netherlands: it’s the feast day of Sint Nicolaas, or Sinterklaas.

The festivities have been going on since Sinterklaas officially arrived in the Netherlands via steamship from Spain on the 16th November. Kids have been setting out their shoes every night, eager to receive kruidnoten (spiced cookies) and little gifts in the morning. Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas’ helper, has definitely been busy!

Zwarte Piet cookies

We don’t celebrate Sinterklaas at home, but I’ve become more aware of the Dutch tradition now that I have Tala. She’s too young to celebrate it now, but I know that as she goes to Dutch playschool and preschool, Sinterklaas will become part of her life—which means it will become part of ours, too.

This year I found out even more about the whole Sinterklaas tradition. For example, there’s the Sinterklaasjournal, a nationwide-airing news show dedicated to the activities of Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten, which kids watch in school. From misplaced presents to Piet’s special wrapping paper, the narrative constantly evolves… and gets pretty elaborate. Parents have to keep up with the “news” or the jig is up!

I’m pretty confident we can find some way for Sinterklaas and Santa Claus to coexist peacably. I’m just glad I have another year to figure out how to do it! Do you celebrate multicultural holiday traditions at home? How do you make them work? I’d love to hear some advice.

Prettige Sinterklaasfeest to you, if you’re welcoming Sint in your home tonight. If not, let’s turn up the volume on those Christmas carols, shall we?

Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on Twitter3Pin on Pinterest0Google+0Email to someone

Sinterklaas’ warehouse

It may be Christmas in our house, but beyond these four walls, Sinterklaas rules. Though we opted not to join the parade welcoming him to Amsterdam from Spain (see last year’s photos), at this time of year, Sinterklaas and his sooty-skinned helper Zwarte Piet are inescapable.

Sint and his hardworking crew caught up with us during a weekend visit to Het Scheepvart Museum, the Maritime Museum. The museum officially serves as Het Pakhuis van Sint Nicolaas, or St. Nicholas’s warehouse, in the run-up to Sint’s big day on the 5th of December.

Scheepvaart-Het Pakhuis van Sinterklaas

Het Pakhuis van Sint is where kids of all ages can come to whisper their wishes to the Big Baas (boss) himself, and see where he stocks his presents.

Presents from Sinterklaas

Of course, where Sint is, his team of Zwarte Piets is sure to follow.

Zwarte Piet1

The Pakhuis is where the Pieten meet and greet curious kiddies…

Zwarte Piet2

hand out pepernoten (ginger spiced cookies), and generally do all sorts of fun stuff…

Zwarte Piet3

with their special place to sleep and rest in between all that hard work.

Slaapkamer voor Pieten

Best of all: Sinterklaas’s very own steamboat is parked out back!

Sinterklaas boat

This is how Sint gets to Amsterdam from Spain, where he spends most of his year (I don’t blame him). If I wasn’t already set to fly home for my yearly dose of sunshine, I would be sorely tempted to stow away with Sint. Especially if there were pepernoten to sustain me on the journey.

Drop by over the weekend for more of our visit to the Maritime Museum, which is great for Amsterdam with kids (or kids at heart). And read this hilarious letter to Sint by British expat blogger Stu—so clever, it warranted a response from the Man himself!

Share on Facebook2Tweet about this on Twitter1Pin on Pinterest0Google+0Email to someone

Welkom Sinterklaas!

Santa who? In the Netherlands, this season is all about Sinterklaas. Forget December 25th. Here, the day for gift-giving is the 5th of December, because that’s when Sinterklaas—Sint Nikolaas, or Saint Nicholas—comes to bring gifts to good children. 
In mid-November, Sinterklaas arrives in town via steamboat from Spain (!) and is welcomed with a huge parade. Public transport in the center of Amsterdam shuts down as what seems like every child in Amsterdam (and their parents) flock to the streets to welcome their beloved Sinterklaas. 

Tradition dictates that on the evening of Sinterklaas’ arrival, children must put a shoe in front of the fireplace with a carrot or hay as a treat for Sinterklaas’ white horse. The next morning, they’ll find a present in their shoes from Sinterklaas.

Here comes the man himself… after the jump!

Each town has its own Sinterklaas. I love that you can actually see Sinterklaas—we Santa-believers had to rely so heavily on our imaginations! Every generation of kids who grew up in the same town will share memories of the same Sinterklaas, and I think that’s wonderful. 

Amsterdam’s Sinterklaas was just perfect. He looks gentle, jolly and regal all at the same time. I was surprised to see that Sint is actually… a Catholic bishop. For a nation that fought tooth and nail to kick out the Spanish, the Dutch sure didn’t want to give this Catholic up.

Just as Santa has his elves, Sinterklaas has his own helper, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). At the parade, there were dozens of Zwarte Pieten. They were everywhere: juggling, singing, dancing, rollerblading, handing out fistfuls of sweets, receiving letters for Sinterklaas.

I know. Blackface, right? These days it’s hard to mention Zwarte Piet without getting into a political discussion, especially if you hang out with mostly non-Dutchies like I do. As a concession to being politically correct, the origin story of Zwarte Piet has shifted over the years. From being Sint’s slave, to a freed slave who was so grateful to Sint that he stayed, today’s Zwarte Piet is simply black from chimney soot—you know, the chimneys his gift-giving work requires him to slip in and out of.

But I don’t think the Dutch will ever get rid of Zwarte Piet. And to me, that’s okay. I guess being from a Kafkaesque country where many things don’t make complete sense, I have some compassion (if you could call it that) for traditions that aren’t completely PC. If something is so ingrained in the fabric of a culture, what would happen if you pulled it out? What would you replace it with, what would you be ripping it out for, and would it be worth it?

Maybe it’s because I just think of it all as one big Ati-atihan in medieval garb. Or maybe it’s because Zwarte Piet bribed me with these tiny gingerbread treats called kruidnoten (“spice nuts”). Yes, my political allegiance can be bought with cookies.

And you should have seen (and heard!) the children. If I had a Euro for every tiny shout of “Piet! Piet!” I heard that day, or every little happy, soot-blackened face I saw, I would be a rich woman. Kids love Zwarte Piet. They love him so much they even dress up like him.

Even the smallest ones.

Zwarte Piet also has a special task for naughty children. Are you ready for this? He stuffs bad boys and girls into his big jute sack and takes them away to… Spain.

Dear Sinterklaas,
I’ve been a bad, bad girl. Where do I sign up for my trip to Spain?
Love,
Currystrumpet

Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on Twitter1Pin on Pinterest0Google+0Email to someone