When I first moved to the Netherlands in 2000, the annual celebration on the 5th December baffled me. Year after year, in search of enlightenment I bombarded my Dutchie with questions.
Thirteen years after witnessing Sinterklaas and his helpers for the first time, I get it. I really do. In 2007 we celebrated it for the first time as a family, because we had a child. Every year since then our celebration has got bigger and better. We have three children that find this time of year magical. Truly magical, and that is what the onlookers on the outside don’t see – the children’s joy and excitement. It is absolutely a children’s festival.
Sinterklaas is now a part of life, and I feel qualified enough to answer my own questions that I once had about Sinterklaas and the festivity of 5 December:
• You Dutch celebrate both Sinterklaas and Christmas. How does that work exactly?
Sinterklaas and Christmas, whilst sharing the same origins, are just not the same thing. That’s why there are two different celebrations. The Dutch do not have two Christmases (contrary to the suppositions of a certain supposed UN representative recently). They celebrate Sinterklaas and Christmas.
• What do you tell the children – Sinterklaas comes at the beginning of December from Spain on the steamboat with his horse, and then the Kerstman comes at the end of the month with his sleigh and reindeer?
The Dutch don’t need to explain the appearance of the kerstman twenty days after Sinterklaas because most Dutch families do not have Father Christmas bringing presents on the 25th December – presents are exchanged in some cases but they are openly from each other. They aren’t left in the dead of night under the Christmas tree by a jolly figure in red. My husband had never received a present on Christmas Day until I moved to the Netherlands. That’s how different the idea of Christmas has been here. The kerstman is known as the Coca Cola santa here. My lucky kids have both figures visiting them because they have a British mother – and that is easy enough to explain.
• How does buying two lots of presents in December fit with the Dutch reputation of
stinginess being careful with money?
As already mentioned, presents aren’t necessarily the norm here at Christmas and certainly not on the grand scale it is in Britain and the United States for example. Besides that the presents on the 5th December are brought over from Spain on the boat by Sinterklaas and the Pieten, even though the Hema and C1000 logos are clear for all to see on chocolate letters and presents… something that did not escape my then five year old last year…..
• What do you mean you want me to put a carrot in my shoe?
No biggie, I’m fine with putting a carrot in my shoe these days as long as the horse gets the carrot out without slobbering in my shoe.
• Why do you throw sweets at your children?
To be fair there are other times of the year when I feel like throwing things at the kids (not just my kids). Getting it all out of your system once a year with sweets is quite ingenious.
Seriously though, you do need to think about where your children will be when the ‘gloved hand’ comes around the door and throws sweets into the room on Pakjesavond. Two years ago we narrowly avoided a hospital run when a ‘Piet’ lobbed goodies into our living room, into the play pen my then two month old baby was lying in. Three screaming kids (two petrified, one injured) is not the best way to spend an evening.
• St Nicholaas is actually from Turkey but travels from Spain in a boat to the Netherlands every year – how does that work?
Okay, hands up, this is one of the things I still can’t explain – the whole ‘he comes from Spain on a boat’ thing is a mystery to me. I have no idea. Nobody I have spoken to has a proper explanation, other than it’s a great holiday home destination. It just is so.
• Where can I find an online Sinterklaas poem generator?
• So, let me get this right. Good girls get chocolate letters and pepernoten and bad girls get a free trip to Spain?
I have since learnt that NO ONE gets to go to Spain. Years of trying my hardest to get on the naughty list to get put in a sack for a free holiday to Spain. It’s a bloody myth. The idea terrifies the kids though and gets them to do what you want for two or three weeks of the year whilst Sinterklaas is in town.
• Sint’s slaves helpers are black because of the soot in the chimneys? Really?
The least said about this the better I think. This year has seen the biggest uproar yet to Zwarte Piet and I wouldn’t be wholly surprised if we see a few changes over the coming years.
• What do you mean I can’t finish off this Sint paper and use it to wrap Christmas presents?
As I said, I get it now. It’s not the same thing. That would be like wrapping Easter eggs in Christmas paper.
Any more questions anyone?