Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sinterklaas Arrives

iPhone photo by Maylis Luna
Here we are in a new country with three young children and the holiday season approaching.  Christmas in the Netherlands is slightly different from France and the USA, so we have been trying to get in step with festivities so that the children can experience the Dutch Christmas, while still preserving elements of Franco-American celebrations.  Some versions of Dutch Christmas traditions differ, but here is what we are piecing together about the holiday.

There’s no mistaking that the season kicked off yesterday with the arrival of Sinterklaas in Alkmaar and other cities around the Netherlands.  This bearded man wearing a bishop's robe is turning out to be Sinterklaas, St. Nicholas, Père Noël and Santa Claus all rolled into one.  I’ve wondered if we were going to end up with a house full of bearded men in red suits eating, drinking and laughing, while we try to sort out who actually does what.


Sinterklass and his black-faced helpers known as Zwarte Pieten, or Black Peters, made their grand arrival by boat in Alkmaar via the North Holland Canal.  Tradition says that Sinterklaas is arriving from Spain, and that Black Peter helper(s)  encourage children to be good by giving out candy, as well as leaving coal in children’s shoes by the chimney if they have been bad.  Their blackened faces and curly hair wigs have startled racial sensitivities of some visitors and sparked some debate among the Dutch.

People lined the canals and followed by boat to see the big man arrive.  Our kids were lucky enough to be invited on a boat by a jolly neighbor with a white beard named…really…Klaas.  They joined a flotilla on the canal into the city center, docking at the cheese market area to see Santa appear on a podium and then begin his procession on a white horse.  Several city streets were impassable as people crowded to get a look at Sinterklaas.

After the season’s kick-off in November with Sinterklaas’s  arrival, children can begin to leave shoes or stockings near the chimney for small presents to be left during the night.  Snacks for Santa and his horse named Amerigo (not reindeer) are left out as well.  Last night Sinterklaas left his first surprises for our kids, along with a note warning one to behave better or else they would get dirt next time.

Sinterklaas with Black Peters
December 5th is then the big day in the Netherlands for presents.  The doorbell will ring and a sack with presents will be there when answered.  This is in celebration of St. Nicholas Day which is on the 6th.

Christmas Eve on the 24th will bring a few more smaller presents for the children like fruit, books and chocolates.  Then Christmas Day is a quieter occasion often with family meals and religious observation.

The children also had a good warm up last Thursday before Sinterklaas’s arrival.  They took to the rainy streets with lanterns to sing for their St. Maarten’s Day candy.  I opened the door to about ten different groups singing the traditional “Eleven November” song.   Our kids finished with three XXL bags of some good candy.  I’ll be glad when it’s all gone.

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