Saturday, November 12, 2011

Santa Tilting at Windmills?

I kid you not!

Not hardly.

Today officially begins the Sinterklaas season in the Netherlands.  The Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus (actually it is vice versa, Sinterklaas was around much before the Santa folklore caught on).  Actually once someone told me that Sinterklaas was the cousin of Santa Claus but I have no idea if that is really true.

And for an outsider like me, what a strange holiday it is.  Even after 10 years, this holiday, like many other Dutch holidays completely cracks me up.

Sinterklaas comes not from the North Pole but arrives here in a boat from Spain every 12th of November, after what is called Sint Maarten, another strange Dutch holiday where all children make lamps and go around the neighborhood in the evening singing special songs and then get rewarded with candy.  I've never gotten Maya to go around, as she much prefers to hand out candy (and so do I).

Well back to Sinterklaas, he arrives on a steamboat from Spain (that probably does make the trip a lot easier than coming on reindeer from the North Pole) and in town squares across the country children go and wait for him to arrive.  He is dressed in traditional red but wears a very tall hat with a cross on it, kind of like the Pope.  Now the Dutch are not romantics, but realists,  so even in their fantasy they cannot get too far from reality, every child knows that there is only one Sinterklaas but they explain that he has many helpers that dress like Sinterklaas so that every child can see his arrival in person.

Sinterklaas arrives with his helpers, no, no, no, not elves, but the Zwarte Pieten (Black Piets), little guys dressed in shorts and feather berets with black faces.  Yep, in this realistic fairy tale, St. Nick has slaves!  Actually there is a lot of disagreement on the Black Piets, some say they are Moors, some say that they aren't really black but are only black from coming down the chimney.  Sinterklaas then gets off the boat and harnesses his horses which he uses to visit all children in the Netherlands.  Maybe that hat was once a bedsheet and Sinterklaas is really from Mississippi?  Hmmmm.

When Sinterklaas arrives he visits the whole country and gives the children sweets in the form of "pepernoten" (literally pepper nuts) but really they are small ginger snaps and he always brings a lot of oranges with him from sunny Spain (I guess those are for the adults).

Every day from his arrival until the day of the Sinterklaas celebration which always takes place on December 5th, the whole country is engrossed in the whereabouts of Sinterklaas.  The local television stations even have dedicated news programs to follow Sinterklaas and capture the imagination of our Dutchies, the "Sinterklaas Journaal" which comes on 3 times a day to update us all about Sinterklaas.

Like Santa Claus, many children write letters to Sinterklaas to ask for what they would like from him.  Like his North Pole counterpart, he makes a list and all the good children receive presents on the 5th of December and the bad children get put in the large Orange sacks which Sinterklaas uses to hold all the presents for the good boys and girls and they get taken back to Spain.  My personal theory is that these bad children become Zwarte Piets (probably this way Sinterklaas gets off without having to pay benefits).

Children who believe are totally enamored with Sinterklaas and follow his every move.  Every night until the 5th of December children put their shoes near the fireplace and stick a carrot inside their shoe for Sinterklaas' horse and on the nights when Sinterklaas comes by, he leaves a sweet or a very small present in the shoe.  Of course, in keeping with the Dutch tradition of not being too over the top, he doesn't do this every night, but only some nights.  So sometimes your carrot is still in your shoe and sometimes when Sinterklaas has come by there is a sweet.  And you don't have a fireplace?  No problem, leave your shoes by the radiator.

Sinterklaas does make an appearance at shopping centers and other gathering places in the country so children can visit him, but most employers in the Netherlands throw Sinterklaas parties for the children of their employees so that children have an opportunity to meet Sinterklaas in person.  You can sit on his lap (although it is hard for him to balance because Sinterklaas always has a large staff in his hand (I guess he works a second job as a shepherd, times are tough in this bullsh-t economy).  It is traditional that you are supposed to sing a song or tell a story to Sinterklaas and then the Zwarte Piets give you more pepernoten and candy.  Maya's lucky, she gets to always go to two parties each year at my office and at Leo's so we don't bother with the mall visits - we leave that to the masses who don't work and live off our tax money.  Those kids should get to meet Sinterklaas too, after all.

On the evening of the 5th of December Sinterklaas visits all houses and leaves presents for the children.  Most Dutch families spend the evening together awaiting the arrival of the orange sack with gifts.  Sinterklaas is very polite too, he doesn't make a mess in your house by coming down the chimney, he rings the doorbell, just like a civilized, cultured European.

It is customary to write small poems for your family members and to make funny gifts for one another to share and have fun on Sinterklaas night.

For many years Maya really didn't understand Sinterklaas although we have done the carrot in the shoe thing, but last year I could see she was into it and now she is really into it, waking up gushing this morning that he is arriving today.  It's funny because she is just starting to believe in it, when most kids her age stop believing.  And interestingly enough it seems that part of the myth is to make sure your kid stops believing.

The other day at work I was having lunch with some colleagues and all talk was on Sinterklaas and one of my colleagues told me that her sister was planning on telling her 8 year old daughter this year that it is not real because at 8 she still believes and it is time she knew the truth at her age.  I was a bit shocked at that and asked why not just let her believe if she still believes?  And I was told that it was important that children hear this from their parents rather than from other kids as that can be unsettling and detrimental to their development.

At my office party, since I work for a large company not all kids get to be called up by Sinterklaas and I never signed Maya up for it because she was always petrified to be the center of attention.  But last year Maya was much more engaged and during the party, although she wasn't called, she went up to him and shook his hand and looked him in the eye and then afterwards told me several times that she wanted to be called.  So, I signed her up for this year's party, I asked the coordinator of the party to let me know if she would be called so I can prepare her for it and gave Sinterklaas a list of guidelines on how to handle Maya.

Luckily, Sinterklaas is willing to bend his rules a little for the autistic spectrum.  I will ask Maya to make a picture for Sinterklaas too as that is something she could give him if she doesn't want to sing and it might help to encourage her to go up there.  It will be interesting to see what she does this year.  I do think she can handle it, otherwise I never would have signed her up but you never know.  

Ahh, I love the not-too-much-fantasy world that the Dutch create with their folklore.    This morning the Sinterklaas Journaal has been on all morning and they dedicated 45 minutes to talking about the 'rules' of Sinterklaas.  It's fun, but controlled fun.  Party!

Still it is fun to see Maya wake up every morning to see what is in her shoe, and sometimes when we are out of carrots we put apples, pears, a can of carrots and one time we put a can of fruit cocktail in there, but those horses must have liked it because they left Maya a Kit Kat bar that morning.

I will say that one thing which is great about Sinterklaas is that the whole tradition is cut loose from Christmas.  It is not a religious holiday at all, despite that Sinterklaas is St. Nicholas, the cross on his KKK bedsheet, hat notwithstanding.  It's great that all kids, no matter what their religion can feel that this is their holiday.  As a kid, and probably most Jewish kids can attest to this, I spent a fair amount of time being jealous of Christmas, I wanted to sit on Santa's lap and wake up Christmas morning with a stocking full of candy and a beautiful glistening tree full of presents.  This isn't quite the same but it is a religion free celebration that everyone can enjoy.  And that is a good thing.

As an American living here I can really feel the cultural divide during Dutch holidays, it is hard for me to find the fun in the Dutch traditions which are so controlled and seem so forced.  But I know that is just because I didn't grow up with this, it's isn't part of my fabric.

I try to remember that it is part of Maya's fabric though so I embrace it for her.

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