Envy Fisher is a Blogger over at Lost In Translation (view her blog here). She is my pen pal; I’m teaching her Shorthand, and she’s teaching me Dutch. To fit with ‘Blogmas’, I asked her to guest post for me today. The title of this post is also a reference to a this song.
Sinterklaas, who doesn’t know him? Well, apart from a few million Dutch speaking people, no one does. While the rest of the western world is already preparing for Christmas, my people are still holding out on the baubles and mistletoe until the 5th of December has come and gone, the day on which we celebrate Sinterklaas. It’s the favorite holiday of most kids and the main reason why Christmas isn’t as big in the Netherlands as it is in the UK, but very few people outside of my country know about it. Today, that’s going to change.
The figure of Sinterklaas is based on St. Nicolas, but by now the holiday has nothing to do with religion anymore. The story behind this holiday nowadays is that Sinterklaas visits the Netherlands once a year to bring presents to all the Dutch children who have been nice that year. He comes all the way from Spain and arrives about halfway through November. Sinterklaas arrives in a different city every year. This is a huge national celebration. I’m talking about television crews swarming around Sinterklaas, thousands upon thousands of people showing up to see it happen and even more watching the event live on tv or online. Apart from this ‘national arrival’, Sinterklaas also arrives in countless other cities and towns at the same time. He has the power and magical abilities to do that, we tell our children (it’s the power of being fictional, but sssshhhh).
Once Sinterklaas has arrived there’s always a bit of excitement in the air. We eat kruidnoten, pepernoten and taaitaai, traditional cookies and candy that Sinterklaas’ helper Zwarte Piet throws around wherever he goes. By the way Zwarte Piet is black because he enters houses to deliver presents through the chimney and got so dirty he couldn’t get the soot off anymore, not because of slavery; and that’s all I’ll say about that as the discussion is sucking a lot of fun out of an innocent children’s holiday.
So while everyone is getting into a festive mood and the old man himself has made his appearance in our small country, the children get to ‘put their shoes up’: they put their wishlist in one of their shoes, add a carrot for Sinterklaas’ horse Amerigo maybe, and sing a traditional Sinterklaas song. Zwarte Piet will hear their singing and picks up the wishlist. The next morning the kids find a small present in their shoe, or at the very least a chocolate letter, usually the initial of their first name.
Sinterklaas is everywhere and the excitement reaches its peak on the 5th of December, the old man’s birthday. On the night of the 5th he will deliver a burlap sack full of presents at the doors of all those who have been nice. Those who have been naughty don’t get anything: they are put into the burlap sack themselves and are taken back to Spain (which of course never happens, but you’ve got to keep your kids quiet and well-behaved somehow). It’s by far the most exciting night every year when you’re growing up in the Netherlands.
But at some point, just like with Santa, kids stop believing in Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. That doesn’t mean the celebrations are over though. Most families, schools and some groups of friends makes ‘surprises’ for each other, which they exchange on the 5th. This is like the Dutch version of Secret Santa: you draw a name and buy that person a present. That’s not all though. You get to be all crafty and make some special package for your present. I once made a football of papier-mâché and hid my present in that. Another year I made a gigantic pack of hagelslag, the chocolate sprinkles we put on our bread. Or you could just fill a box with slime as some people like to do. Last but not least you add a poem to the package, which is usually about how much you like the other person or why you picked that present for them.
All this is why the Dutch eagerly awaits a visit from Sinterklaas while the rest of the world is slowly getting into that Christmas mood. We celebrate his birthday on the 5th and then, the next day, he’s gone. Disappeared as if he’s never even been here. That’s when the Dutch finally go all out on the Christmas decorations and join the rest of the western world’s madness again. But until then, we’ll be eating kruidnoten while writing our friends and family a cheesy poem and our kids sing songs in front of their shoes.