This year we celebrated the Dutch holiday of Sinterklaas outside of The Netherlands for the first time. Still recuperating from the wedding, and heading straight away into Thanksgiving and Christmas, a trip over just wasn’t going to happen. (We will be going on our daughter’s birthday weekend in February!) The Dutch Man was noticeably distraught over missing his favorite childhood celebration, he hasn’t had to miss as much as me living abroad and it was his first one away from home in 27 years. I enjoy a challenge, and we were both determined to make sure the Kid had the most authentic Sinterklaas possible– living in a country where nobody celebrates it.
Sinterklaas is a figure that is celebrated across much of Europe on December 5th of each year. The origin is unknown for certain but many believe Sinterklaas strongly parallels the Germanic God ‘Odin’ from Pre-Christian Europe. Saint Nicholas himself was the patron saint of children, he was a Greek bishop who lived in what would now be present-day Turkey. As Saint Nicholaas is also the patron saint of sailors, it became tradition for him to ride in a steamboat with his helper Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) from Spain (where part of his remains were buried) to The Netherlands. Once he arrives, small gifts are given to children in their shoes which accumulates with a burlap sack full of gifts on the 5th of December. There has been major controversy over the holiday, specifically in reference to the black helpers of Sinterklaas. Many children (and adults) paint their faces black to mimic these characters which is often looked down upon for its racist implications. I will not be discussing the racism of Sinterklaas on my blog today, as I would rather share the positive and happy parts of a holiday celebrated by my family. (Whether I agree with all aspects of the holiday or not.)
On November 16th, the intocht of Sinterklaas began. This is when Sinterklaas arrives with the Zwarte Pieten on his steamboat from Spain. Thousands and thousands of children await his arrival, lining the waterways and singing across the Netherlands. Although there is an official arrival each year which is broadcast on national television, most cities have an unofficial arrival of Sinterklaas as well. I have attended two of these events back when we lived in The Netherlands, and it is truly an amazing thing to see.
Once Sint and his horse Amerigo depart the boat, there is usually a large parade in which he rides through the crowd waving at the children. The Zwarte Pieten throw candy and pepernoten (small gingerbread-like cookies) to the kids, who are all dressed like Zwarte Pieten or Sinterklaas themselves. Once Sinterklaas has officially arrived, kids all over The Netherlands (England in our case) have the green light to put their shoes out by the fire before bed (which they must sing to of course). Over the next couple weeks they will receive small gifts and candy in their shoes. On December 5th families get together and Sinterklaas brings by a giant sack of gifts that are accompanied with a poem for each person. After presents there is a lot of food and drinks and family bonding. Typical holiday stuff here.
Obviously we were missing many of the major elements of Sinterklaas here in England. We were able to watch the arrival of Sinterklaas via a live stream online so that was covered. We told the Kid that Sinterklaas would sail over to England from The Netherlands every weekend for the Dutch kids who lived here, and that she could put out her shoes on those days. As she is only four, the issue of no other kids at school knowing about Sinterklaas is not yet an issue- she just thinks she is extra special.
Since December 5th is not a holiday here, we moved our Sinterklaas celebration to the following Saturday. After hearing strange noises upstairs and the Dutchman swearing he saw a Zwarte Pieten climb up a ladder out the window, the Kid discovered a burlap sack full of gifts waiting for her. Each person had a gift with a special poem written for them from Sinterklaas that reflected their past year’s triumphs and major activities. Most are a bit silly, and I always find it awkward reading mine out loud in front of everyone. Although my Dutch has gotten much better since my first Sinterklaas!
We finished the day with a meal of Dutch pancakes, always a favorite in our house. Sinterklaas, English edition, was a success but we definitely missed doing it back in The Netherlands with family. (Last year we had a Zwarte Pieten and Sinterklaas come to the house and personally deliver the gifts-which was creepy and awesome simultaneously.) I am very happy with the way the day turned out, and even though it wasn’t the same as usual, we had a great day spending time together. A very gezellig* Sinterklaas abroad.
*Gezellig is a very important word in Dutch culture. It doesn’t translate into English but can best be described as that ‘cosy’ feeling you have when you are doing something enjoyable. For example: Sitting in front of the fire drinking wine with my friends is so gezellig.
Do you celebrate any holidays that aren’t celebrated in the country where you live?