Wednesday, December 9, 2009

In the Red Corner Sinter Klaas and in the other Red Corner Santa Claus

Well I don't know. After years of worshipping, behaving for and trying to fearfully catch a glimpse of Santa and his Reindeer the Dutch just expect me to get all excited about Sinterklaas! Santa Claus has been good to me! He has brought me gifts for my whole life! I have photos to prove it. He loves my cookies. He employs millions of Elves according to the movie The Polar Express. He loves animals especially if they are different or have flare like Rudolph! PLUS...I was always told and very much believe that Santa Claus is an equal opportunity Christmas Holiday gift giver. I KNOW he comes to Holland and gives gifts. I never recall Sinterklaas coming to my house in the States to do his business. What?  Does Sinterklaas have issues with Americans, huh, huh?

Okay don't get me wrong. I am very willing to adopt, welcome, and enthusiastically celebrate Sinterklaas. I believe in all Holidays. I support them. Life should be one big celebration! The more the merrier I say! Anything that involves me getting gifts (oh and giving) is good with me! Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, Spain's Caga Tio, Germanys Lucky Pickle, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Posadas you name it. Just give me a date, the day off, have a party and some food and I love it!

This was my first Sinterklaas. I had no idea what to expect. I found myself learning about this very Dutch tradition. There were a few debates or "educational" conversations about Sinter Klaas versus Santa Claus. Often these occurred will sipping coffee and eating Kruidnoten. Kruidnoten are everywhere during Sinterklaas time. They are little pellet size ginger cookies. The Dutch eat them by the handful. They are on office counters in bowls. People would hand them to you as gifts. It was always nice and surprising to receive a handful of ginger pellets from a stranger in black face on the street. They were all over the streets. Pigeons love them. Kruidnoten are just not the prettiest things in the world and I am not the biggest fan of ginger cookies. Although later I discovered a few things.They sell them chocolate covered (milk, white and dark) and I firmly believe that if you cover it in chocolate I will like it! I now love chocolate covered Kruidnoten. Also I realized that these NON-chocolate Kruidnoten resemble a child cereal I used to love called Cookie Crisps. So I have started eating Kruidnoten bowls of cereal. I do this in private. I know the Dutch will not approve. The last few mornings I get up and throw a handful out to the pigeons and then pour some milk over mine and we all enjoy the Kruidnoten!

Anyway Santa Claus and Sinterklaas are very similar in many ways yet oh so different. They are alike in that they both wear red and white, have beards, bring gifts, have helpers. Sinter Klaas tends to be a bit more "religious" than Santa. He is an Arch-Bishop after all. He comes from Turkey but seems to have close ties with Spain (I am not sure why) and his helpers are, well, not Elves. They seem happy but I am worried about them. I tried to ask them if they were happy (and free) but they were to busy wreaking havoc all over Holland to stop and talk! One just gave me a handful of Kruidnoten when I tried to offer him shelter from his oppressor!

Sinterklaas Daag is the 6th and until then it is all and only about Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas has so much power here in Holland that you are technically not allowed to celebrate Christmas until after Sinterklaas. I know this because the American came out in me on December 1st when my NEED for a Christmas tree caused me to annoyingly  harass Jur until he agreed to get one. I saw a Christmas tree seller as I passed by on my bike on the way to my Dutch Class. I almost biked right in to a ditch I was so excited. We went on the third for our tree, this sweet little Dutch man greeted us. I watched as Jur and he talked "tree" in Dutch. There was a problem. I could tell. Oh, hell no! I am getting my tree! We were allowed to "look" at the trees.

I whispered to Jur "What's wrong?"

Jur replied while looking at the top of a tree and trying not to move his lips "nothing" he shook the tree (I think he did this to cover our conversation) "we are not supposed to buy a tree until after Sinterklaas" then he quickly moved on.

I followed him through the mud. It was raining of course. We met up again in the next row and I whispered as I looked down to the ground  "We can't have a tree?"  I was about to get upset.

"Shhh" Jur said "it's fine, he is going to sneak us one out the back of that tent over there but we can't tell anyone where we got it, now go! Go to your own row of trees and we will figure out a way to choose one, Go!"

I ran off in the rain and mud. It was all very Euro World War two-ish and filled with feelings of espionage. I was paranoid as we drove through Den Haag with the tree on top of our car that the Politie (Police) might stop as and interrogate us about our tree. Also if we put lights on it and it is by the window will are neighbors turn us in? Ugh Christmas Trees in Holland pre December 6th are stressful.

I get why the Dutch keep Christmas separate from Sinterklaas. The Dutch love Sinterklaas and they want to protect him from being over taken by Christmas. This is does seem to be slowly happening and I could easily be taken as a threat to Sinterklaas with all my Pro Santa Claus propaganda. Especially when I find my self biking through town unaware that I'm singing "Here comes Santa Claus Here comes Santa Claus right down Santa Claus lane". (I need to stop doing that). So I decided to fully celebrate Sinterklaas Dag! On the 5th I went to Jur's Sister house for dinner with the entire family. It was lovely. Food, wine. Then at one point as we all mingled there was a LOUD bang bang bang and then a door flew open and a large bucket of Kruidnoten came flying in the air all over us and to the floor! A kruidnoot came within inches of poking me in the eye. People screamed "Zwarte Pietje, Zwarte Pietje!" Those devilish trouble making (of course black face) Zwarte Pietjes. They are causing trouble all over the place. It was kind of a shocking and awkward moment, I thought, as I found myself rushing with others to gather as many Kruidnoten as I could. I got caught up in Kruidnoten rush. It is instinct for me to fight for sweets when they are thrown in the air.

After we all calmed down from the attempted vandalizing from the Zwarte Pietje and after dinner it was time for Sinterklaas Gifts. Now this was by far the most difficult part. Everyone bought little gifts or I should say Sinterklaas bought everyone little gifts! Just like in the States I thought...but oh no. Little did I know that I was embarking on a two or three hour event. One by one, one gift at a time, a gift would be opened. The first gift was opened and we would sit around the table and pass the gift around and everyone commented on it and then after that the recipient of the gift would get up and get the next gift for another person. They too would open it, pass it along...998 Dutch gifts on the wall, 998 Dutch gifts on the Wall, 998 Gifts,  you take one down pass it around 997 Dutch gifts on the Wall! I mean HONESTLY there were ten of us! That is at least 3 gifts each and some got more! It was exhausting. By round two I was running out of enthusiasm. Maarten (my Dutch Nephew) got a packet of gum. We passed the packet of gum around and discussed it. It is gum for god sakes! I just kept drinking more and more wine. By round three of  the gifts my back was hurting from sitting so long and from all the shoving I did earlier with the Dutch over the kruidnoten that was thrown throw the door. I was trying hard not to make any anti Sinterklaas gift giving slurs. Round five Segher (youngest Dutch Nephew) got a razor! "Oh hurry hurry pass that over here. I wanna see" I mockingly mumbled in my corner of the table as I reached for more wine. Round six Wibrand got socks. Round seven Angelique got a calendar. In round eleven I got a bird feeder (which I love) AND which explained why in round eight I got bird seed that I embarrassingly passed around. Round fourteen I got bird peanuts (see pictue above) which, for a moment,I was hoping were edible because I was becoming hungry again. I, of course, passed them around. It was a long long process.

Finally the last gift was for me. It is called a Dutch Surprise! I received a foiled up long heavy roll that looked like a giant burrito. It was a gift made by Dieneke, Jur and Cathy's family friend. She and her husband and daughter joined us for the evening, which I loved, but I must admit at one point I calculated that their presence added one about an hour and sixteen minutes to the gift giving marathon. Dieneke brought me a Dutch Sinterklaas traditional gift. I slowly started to unroll it and it was a large tortilla shaped piece of leather covered in peanut butter, syrup, cooked noodles, chopped up sausage, I think ketchup and they all yelled "Surprise". I sat there speechless, stuff dripping from my hands and said "what is this, thank you I mean Danku..I don't get it. Wow what a surprise! Jur I don't get it." Well apparently hidden amongst the goop is a trinket. I found it after I dug around a while. I asked if I was supposed to pass it around but NO not that! No one wanted to touch that!

That concluded my first Sinterklaas Dag. It was so late that Jur and I decided to spend the night. I eventually excused myself and said I was tired (too much wine actually) and needed to go to bed. I went up stairs and tried to wash my hands but I could not get that greasy sticky surprise off. I got undressed and three kruidnoten fell out of my clothes. My back was still sore. I laid down and I could hear all the Dutch Sinterklaas celebration still going on. I silently sang myself to sleep.... "Here comes Santa Claus. Here comes Santa Claus right down Santa Claus lane".


  1. Just be glad there were no poems being written/read for the Sinterklaas gifts! You might still be there opening gifts! (Although if you ever got forced into writing a Sinterklaas poem, just plagarize the Night Before Christmas poem or the Partridge in a Pear Tree song. That's what we did last year when we found out we had to write poems to accompany the gifts we were giving.)

    I love the Cookie Crisp comparison! Perfect for me, since I tended to eat the cereal without milk anyway. This season I discovered the truffel kruidnoten. *drool* Sweet, sweet cocoa-powder-covered cookies, how I love you so! ;)

  2. Oh the visuals running through my mind of you running through the mud to get your secret tree. Rebel!
    I am sitting here alone in the house laughing my tush off at this post.

  3. I have the worst trouble with openID. Did the comment I left earlier actually show up? If not, it was brilliant. ;)

    -aka oranjeflamingo

  4. Hi, I am a reporter with Minnesota Public Radio and I am doing a story on Holiday traditions around the world. I was looking for American's abroad who were encountering other traditions and I came across your post. I would be interested in interviewing you briefly over the phone about if possible. Please e-mail me when you get the chance. I can be reached at stotten-at-mpr-dot-org (with real symbols and no dashes of course).

    I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks!

  5. Thanks for laughs, I am getting tears and cheek cramps... I am transplanted here for just about one year and I can relate to you so much... I will be back to read more...

  6. Ken, I too am an impat to the Netherlands, and I find your blog posts small comfort that I am not alone in my experiences.

    I have found that there are many fine things about this country, that often outweigh the things that frustrate us. Keep up the humour!

  7. Those Dutch. Total weirdos, I tell ya'.

  8. I am in the US,reading your thoroughly enjoyable explanation of Dutch holiday revelry. Your writing is joyful and a real treat! I can't wait to read more.....

  9. Where are you at in the US Valerie?