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Christmas in the Netherlands

Itís been a long time since Lynn and I have been in America (or so it seems) and we have a vague recollection that next week is Thanksgiving. (I did have some Americans express surprise that the Dutch donít celebrate Thanksgiving, but thatís another story and I digress). One of the big things that happens on Thanksgiving is that Santa Claus comes to town and everyone knows that he visits all the kids on Christmas Eve leaving presents for all the good little boys and girls.

The Christmas celebration is a little different here. The present exchange isnít at Christmas; itís on St. Nicholas Day, December 6. And without a Thanksgiving parade to welcome Santa to town, what does one do? Sinterklaas came to town last Saturday, November 13, and it was a big celebration for the kids at the harbor. He comes every year by steamship and then rides a horse. Forget reindeer. And no North Pole for this dude; Sinterklaas lives in Spain (where itís warm the whole year - this guy is no dope) and heís accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) his sidekick and helper. There were actually hundreds of Zwarte Piets, all in black face make-up which is available in all the stores along with the appropriate costume for the kids to dress up. Can you imagine that going over real well in the U.S.? Zwarte Piet is a Moor, a race of people from Morocco who were (or "are" Ė Iíve never seen a current reference to the Moors, only historical) black. In the following weeks before St. Nicholas Day, Sinterklaas goes about the country to determine if the children have been well-behaved. He and his Zwarte Piet helpers visit children in schools, hospitals, department stores, and even at home. The bakeries are busy making speculaas, molded spice cookies of the saint. During this time children put out their shoes with wish-lists and a carrot or hay, or maybe a saucer of water for the horse. When St. Nicholas happens by, the next morning children find chocolate coins or initial letter, candy treats, and little gifts in their shoes. Everyone hopes for sweets, not coal or a little bag of salt.

The Spanish, by the way, donít share in this tradition. They probably have there own version and, I suppose, get a chuckle out of the Dutch Sinterklaas living in their country. From what Iíve learned, this tradition goes back to antiquity when the Moors conquered Spain and the Spanish conquered the Dutch or something. Iíve discovered my European history is very lacking.

Christmas day is also different. Itís a two day religious holiday, one day for momís side of the family, one day for dadís. But this is one of those years of intense grumbling. December 25 and 26 both fall on weekend days this year. Unlike in America, where if a holiday is on the weekend, itís observed by a day off on Friday or Monday, that doesnít happen here. It is what it is and local folks are not happy.

Youíll notice that Sinterklaas dresses differently from Santa Claus. He has the familiar red but itís in the form of a bishopís robe and he wears a bishopís hat. He also always has that stick with the gold hook that is called, I think, a scepter.

 

© 2008 Rick Wexler   last updated February 21, 2008