Sunday, December 21, 2008

sinterklaas 2008

the big man out here in holland isn't santa claus (or the kerstman as he's known to the dutch), but sinterklaas.

sinterklaas arrives by boat from spain a few weeks before his feast day, which is 5 december. his arrival is always greeted by a parade and parties, a festival known across the country as intocht. during his time in holland, you can go to visit sinterklaas at his "house", and ask him for the many gifts that you'd like to receive while he's in town. children are allowed to set their shoes out by the fireplace (similar to our tradition in the USA of hanging stockings for santa), and in the weeks prior to 5 december, sinterklaas will come to your home now and then and bring you a little cadeautje, or gift. and on 5 december, families across the netherlands gather together to give little presents to each other, read little made-up poems that they wrote about each other, and eat sweet treats like amandelstof (pastry bread with almond paste in the center) or pepernoten (little spiced cookies, like gingersnaps but slightly different).

this being our last year in holland, and because we have a baby who is totally amazing and wonderful, we decided we had better get our butts over to see sinterklaas at his house, which was quite conveniently located right next door. his house here is the little rectory house which is attached to our beautiful cathedral. we really had no excuse not to go!

we stood in line for about an hour, and were kept entertained by the numerous zwartepieten who were there, dancing, handing out balloons and cookies, and playing with the children. there was also a very kind woman, about our age, who was from the area and liked to give us all sorts of advice about where to go shopping or what to expect at the market now that it is the holiday season. she was sweet.

sinterklaas' house is actually the same room where gracie's creche is on sunday mornings, when we go to church. it was neat to see how they had transformed it into a cozy little house, complete with a bed, a living room area, and of course a computer and a ledger so he can keep track of who has been naughty and who has been nice over the year.

once it was gracie's turn, we handed her over to sint himself, and he quietly studied her and let her examine his beard, which was the most mysterious and interesting thing that she has ever seen in her whole life. (gracie, by the way, seems to be fascinated by facial hair. both of her grandpas have hair on their faces, and she loves to play with that!) she didn't cry at all, and was very brave while she sat on his lap and we told sint what a good girl she has been the whole year.

before we left, zwartepiet gave gracie a little gift to take home, and when we got back we set her present by her shoes (which are wooden clogs that we just bought at the gardening store down the street. naturally!). she opened her gift the next morning and found the clogs to be more interesting than the present itself. :-)

a few weeks later, we were in leiden. adam's parents were just here for a nice visit, and we spent a few days travelling through leiden and maastricht before we came back here to hengelo to enjoy the rest of their vacation. bob had mentioned more than once how intruiged he was by this sinterklaas character, and he was hoping that he would have a chance to meet him while he was here. since bob and rae were arriving on 5 december, it was the perfect day to go introduce them to sint. and really, our last chance to do so: by 6 december all the stores are decked out for christmas (like the day after thanksgiving for us in the states -- there's no messing around!), and sinterklaas will have left for spain again already.

i got online before they came out, and discovered that sinterklaas has another house in leiden. of course. because he needs to see all the children of holland before he leaves for the year, so it makes perfect sense that he'd have a house in hengelo AND in leiden! we checked into our hotel, grabbed our coats, and headed out to find the house of sint. we didn't have to look very hard for it, because there was even an advertisement for it on the main street in leiden!

sint's house in leiden is much different than the one here. whereas you stand in line to see sinterklaas in hengelo, in leiden his whole house is one big activity center. it was so much fun! sinterklaas himself greeted us at the door and welcomed us inside, while zwartepieten were running around and playing with the children. there were all sorts of crafts and games set up inside, and if you completed an activity at each station you could get a sticker to put on your little passport that they gave you at the door; complete every activity, and present your stamped passport to piet, and you can get a diploma which makes you an honorary zwartepiet! how fun!

i sure hope we can continue this tradition when we move home to the states. it's a very cozy and fun holiday that the dutch have, and one that i have enjoyed every year that we've been here!


teresa said...

I just learned a new thing about my family, who are historically from the Western area of Germany, apparently. Just as recently as my mother's childhood, the family used to receive a visit from St. Nick (who, in this case, is the same person as Santa, I think), and Black Pete! Someone would dress up with coal all over their face (and I hope they understood it to be coal, and not like a racist thing) and carry chains. The family celebrated both St. Nick's day on Dec 6 and Christmas. On St. Nick's day the family put out shoes or long socks (not fancy Christmas stockings, but actual socks) which would be filled overnight. As a child, my mom always had us put out socks on St. Nick's day, which were inevitably filled with oranges, candy, and toothbrushes. The oranges (usually 3 in each sock) symbolized the three gold coins that the real St. Nicholas gave as a gift to the famed poor farmer for his daughters' dowry. Then we put out the fancy Christmas stockings on Xmas eve.

The A-Team said...

what a great tradition your family has, t! that's really neat that you all did that, and that your mom passed on that practice to you and chris.

and, as a clarification, i believe you are right that st. nick's day is on 6 dec. but here in the netherlands they celebrate on 5 december -- but i think everywhere else they celebrate on the 6th. i have no idea why that is, but that's the story...