photo by Michael Zappa

photo by Michael Zappa

The 5th of december is Sinterklaas in the Netherlands.  In november, Sinterklaas sails in his boat from Spain (because thats where he lives…of course) with Zwarte Piet, his ‘moorish friend/servant’ (I had misgivings about the political correctness of ‘Black Pete’ but dutchboy assures me he’s dark from “cleaning chimneys…” uh huh).  This event is filmed by television stations and broadcast on the news so the kids really believe it. Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet spend the time before december 5th frequenting shopping malls and city centres, carrying bags of tiny spiced biscuits that Zwarte Piet chucks at children. Literally. When I spent winter there a few years ago we were pelted with biscuits everywhere we went. It hurt. Kids love it.

On the night  of Sinterklaas, presents are exchanged and I’m pretty sure this is where western countries get ‘secret santa’ from. A few weeks before, each person in the family pulls a name out of a hat and they have to get a present and wrap it in a meaningful way that represents the person receiving the gift. This involves sticky tape, glue, hammers, nails, carpet squares etc. The wrapping of the present is almost more important than the present. A poem is written about the person’s year, detailing all the embarrassing and good things they have done, signed from Sinterklaas & Zwarte Piet. If the kids are still young then they aren’t in on the-name-in-the-hat business – its all just Sinterklaas’ doing. They also leave their clogs by the fireplace and receive little gifts or chocolate in the days leading up to the 5th. It’s really sweet. Christmas is left as a family occasion with good food. 

I thought the whole thing was really bizarre when I first experienced it (I may have been a bit cranky about the unexpected public biscuit pelting…) but then I realised that the story of Santa Claus is even stranger. Santa Claus, being derived from Sinterklaas, lives at the North Pole, has a sleigh that travels through time zones, flying reindeer, and the ability to squeeze down chimneys despite being re-he-heally fat. At least Sinterklaas has a boat, a real place of origin, and is polite enough to knock at a sociable hour.

We celebrated pakjesavond (present night) for the dutchboy at home with lots of fried dutch food and opening of presents his mum sent us. We *ate* the biscuits. I know, I know. So untraditional.

Happy Sinterklaas. 



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