Fresh off his steamship and glowing from his year-round residence in sunny Spain, Sinterklaas has officially arrived in the Netherlands. Let the holidays begin!
This marks the year Marlon and I have decided to embrace this most beloved of Dutch traditions. Tala is growing fast in her awareness of the world around her; now that she’s in Dutch daycare, Sint is practically inescapable. We figured it was time to welcome Sint into our home, our lives, and make him part of our family’s holiday traditions.
We took Tala to her very first Sinterklaasintocht (Sinterklaas’ arrival) last Sunday, the 15th of November. The intocht is a huge affair involving an hours-long land and water parade, an official welcome at the Scheepvaartmuseum (Maritime Museum), and a big show at one of the city’s main squares. Many other Dutch towns and cities stage their own version of the intocht.
We decided to try and catch him arriving by steamship at the Scheepvaartmuseum. Despite the howling winds and pelting rain, hundreds of kids waited eagerly to welcome Sint, all dressed in serious rain gear (in true Dutch fashion). You can’t imagine how excited they all were. The frenzy positively radiated from meters away as we walked towards the museum.
Tala was… mehhh. We did “brief” her on Sint (i.e. watched a few Sinterklaas songs on Youtube) and bought her her own little Pietpakje (Piet suit). She seemed to enjoy it in theory…
but here, her face says it all: “Why are we standing around in this crappy weather?” Ah, well. We have many frenzied years ahead of us, so no rush.
Dutch kids LOVE Sint’s mischievous and jolly helper, Piet. Tala didn’t take too well to the many Pieten capering about and making merry. She just wanted to get away from him and cling to Papa, as she does with all strangers. Yep, we have a shy one here.
The Sinterklaasintocht is heaven for kids. Apart from Sint and his white horse Amerigo, the parade also features lots of things kids love, like beautiful big horses…
all kinds of tractors and trucks loaded with lots of presents…
shiny red fire engines and yummy kruidnoten (spiced cookies). Even better: a kruidnoten-dispensing fire engine!
Taking Tala to the intocht wasn’t as easy as putting on her Piet hat and heading off. After living in the Netherlands for a while, and after becoming a mom, my feelings about Sinterklaas and more importantly, his helper Piet, aren’t quite as simple as when I first saw him ride into the city four winters ago.
In the Netherlands, a former slaving country, the topic of (Zwarte/Black) Piet is extremely emotionally charged. Beneath its festive surface, it gets divisive and controversial with cries of racism; the practice of blackface is protested yearly by various groups and was recently criticized by the UN for being racist.
I had to think long and hard. As a person of color living amongst a white majority, I felt conflicted. But as a person from a highly politically incorrect society, I also felt oddly… sympathetic. And well… you can’t enjoy Sint and just ignore Piet. Unlike the Dutch, neither Marlon nor I grew up with this tradition so I don’t feel our family has to do it. So why are we embracing Sint… and Piet?
Because our home is here, even if it’s just for now.
Because I want Tala to be like every other child in the Netherlands on this day, and during this season. Because it’s fun!
Because I know what it’s like to be the different one, and I want my daughter to feel like she belongs.
Because Tala is just two, and we have many years ahead to learn together, to explain and shape her views.
Because it doesn’t mean giving up our own traditions and values, but making room in our hearts and psyches for new ones.
Because I may be a little naive; this seems pretty consistent with how I make many life decisions. But maybe that’s because my mom is too, and I admire my mom for being childlike at heart when the events of her life might made turned others resentful and bitter.
Because I trust that the Dutch are slowly changing (I did observe more sooty faces this year than fully blacked up ones. Thumbs up, Amsterdam!). Because I can sympathize with slow change, coming from a country where it seems nothing really changes or ever will.
Because I can demand the Dutch change, but I can also meet them halfway by understanding what it is they love so much.
Because somehow, while standing in the wind and the rain waiting for Sinterklaas to arrive, looking at all those little faces full of joy, I understood a little bit of why the Dutch want to fight for what they feel is under attack.
Because all those arguing adults were once innocent little kids, waiting with eagerness and hope. Because there is an impulse in every parent to protect and defend, and also to want for a better world for their children, and to feel conflicted.
Because when Sint bent down to gently touch Tala’s head I felt a little thrill. Because I believed… no, I believe in magic.
And, finally, because I am—and hope I will always be—the kind of parent that welcomes every opportunity to usher magic and wonder into my child’s life.
Welcome to our family, Sinterklaas and Piet. Here’s to many happy years together.