Monday, February 3, 2014

Sint Maarten, Sinter Klaas, and Zwarte Piet: New Traditions in the Netherlands

One of the best parts of living abroad is learning about, and participating in the holidays and traditions that your new home celebrates. And one of the challenges of living abroad is hanging on to and finding ways to celebrate holidays and traditions that exist in your homeland. Immediately following Ebba's birth was a whirlwind of holidays, old and new. For Simon, they were all new. He's finally at an age (and we're not traveling SEA) to really participate in and enjoy the holidays.


Given Simon's love for Mike Wazowski (MW), it's not surprising that we kicked off the fall holiday season with Simon dressed as MW for Halloween. I had of course expected to go trick-or-treating with Simon for the first time in October, but Ebba's arrival meant that I stayed home while Martin took him out. I was disappointed, especially as I had made a little Baby Wazowski costume to cover my pregnant belly that I was never able to put to use.

Amazingly, the expat community has organized a trick-or-treating route in one of the central neighborhoods of Amsterdam. Hundreds of kids participated and Simon was giddy to come home with a small pile of candy.

Sint Maarten

Sint Maarten, on November 11, could be considered the Dutch equivalent of Halloween, just based on the fact that it involves going house to house and collecting candy. The children don't dress up, rather they make lanterns that they use to guide their way through the street as they sing traditional Sint Maarten songs in order to receive their candy. Simon had learned a few of the songs at creche, but he couldn't keep up with how quickly the Dutch kids sang. Still, he was happy to be collecting candy again. (This was also Ebba's first venture out of the house!)

Simon and his lantern

Sinter Klaas

As if Simon hadn't had enough sweets and treats, Halloween and Sint Maartens were peanuts compared to what was next to come. SINTER KLAAS!!! I would have guessed that Sinterklaas was some Dutch equivalent to Santa Claus, and I would have been wrong.

Sinter Klaas is actually Saint Nicholas, which I was familiar with as I used to leave my shoe out on December 5 so that Saint Nick would fill it with a pack of starbursts or skittles. It was a small, fun little thing leading up to the main event - Christmas! But not here...not at all.

I still don't have the story completely straight, but I do know that Sinterklaas arrives from Spain in November, a few weeks before December 6, which is actually the day that he leaves. He arrives by boat to great fanfare and has a grand parade around the city, which conveniently passed just a few blocks from our flat.

Waiting for Sinterklaas

Here he comes!
While he's in the Netherlands he spends his time leaving gifts in children's shoes around the country. How often and what kind of gifts depends entirely on the family. Given that he is in town for several weeks, it's not likely that he comes every night. December 5 is pakjes avond (present night), and is usually a time for Dutch families to celebrate together and exchange gifts.

Conveniently for us, Sinter Klaas passed by our local pub on pakjes avond with gifts (prearranged by parents) for all the kids that attended. As foreigners it was the perfect way to celebrate this new holiday. Simon was a little intimidated by Sinterklaas in the beginning, but once he warmed up he was so excited. He was also impressed that Sinterklaas spoke English! How lucky for us.

And one other detail, that I am not going to get into right now, is that Zwarte Piet (or Black Pete) accompanies Sinter Klaas. He is dressed in blackface....but the Dutch will assure that it's not offensive or racist in the least. It just happens to make the rest of the world extremely uncomfortable. I will let David Sedaris enlighten you a bit and we can discuss again at some future point.


What's amazing about living in the Netherlands is that we have FAMILY here. While my roots are Dutch, that's not where this family comes from. My sister's husband's cousins live here, and they are now my cousins. It's wonderful to have family around, and since they are half American we decided to celebrate Thanksgiving together. It was a little unorthodox, as we went for spaghetti and meatballs instead of turkey, but Ebba was just a few weeks old and we decided simple was better. We hosted at our house but I didn't cook or clean. That's why family is amazing!
My cousin Lena with Ebba.


After Sinterklaas departed on December 6, we started gearing up for the next big thing - Christmas. This also meant the arrival of Grandma, or Mormor

Simon got to meet Santa Claus, who was impressed with his two Christmas wishes, which were a book and a dog bone for his soft toy dog. Needless to say, Simon's list grew as he realized he could just add any item to his list.

Having Grandma in town was a HUGE help. Like a mama who has been there before, she didn't mind holding a crying baby and giving this mama a nice break. Ebba was still really fussy during this period, so it was much needed. Grandma is also a lot of FUN, and Simon couldn't get enough of his new roommate.

But we didn't just sit around the house, we took a trip to Brussels to check out the Christmas market there. For Simon it was a little piece of heaven. He got to ride the carousel over and over, a ferris wheel, and the alpine slide. (He even snuck a free ride on the alpine slide - proud Mama!) He got to see Mannekin Pis (boy going potty) in person, something he had seen in his new Maps book and was quite looking forward to. Dinner was waffles followed by an ice cream cone. What a life!
Most amazing carousel EVER. This rocket ship went through the roof!!!
We celebrated Christmas at home, small and quiet. It was the first time we (Martin and I) have ever had a Christmas tree. We enjoyed not traveling for the holidays, and Martin took nearly 2 weeks off of work.

Needless to say, Ebba's birthday kicks off a pretty serious holidays season in our house. And that doesn't even include Santa Lucia, a Swedish holiday on December 13. I guess we'll add that to the mix next year, though!