The joys of Dutch myths

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Dutched Pinay experiences the heartwarming tradition of Sint Maarten for the first time and like an excited child brushes up on her Dutch for the annual Sinterklaas poem and present celebration!

As a little girl, I always believed in the legend of Santa Claus; that he lives at the immaculate freezing North Pole, rides his majestic sleigh with red-nosed reindeers pursuing an imaginary track over the skies, that children can send him letters of what they want for Christmas and that he treats the well-behaved with nice goodies and punishes the naughty.

 

As keepers of humankind's imagination; children believe in anything they want to believe — and there are times when I wish I could also see the world from the eyes of a child.

Well, last weekend, Saturday, the Dutchman and I went to the north, in Friesland, to visit friends. The couple has three lovely and hyperactive kids who would not stop playing with the Dutchman. Jumping on top of him, pulling his legs, arms and ears and tickling his sides. He was outnumbered, 3:1.

This lasted until the children were told by the parents to prepare their lanterns for the Sint Maarten [Saint Martin] walk.

This was my first chance to witness the Sint Maarten tradition as it is not popular in Utrecht and is mainly practiced (I believe) in the provinces of Drenthe, North Brabant, Friesland and Overijssel.

So I volunteered to go with the kids.

With the children's lamps burning brightly, we stepped out for a short journey around the neighborhood. We hopped from one house to another. The children sang lively songs in honour of Sint Maarten. In return, they received treats from the serenaded residents: candies, chocolates and fruits.

Now, doesn't this sound so familiar?

The practice does appear like the trick or treat of Halloween — without the spook or the delirious and balmy costumes. It is also 11 days later in the calendar.

At the last house for the night, before we headed back home to have dinner, the three children sang their loudest and waved their lanterns proudly as the light flickered into the dark.

Their little knapsacks hanging from their small backs were full of sweets and mandarin oranges. Mandarins, I was told, are very popular goodies to give out during Sint Maarten. They are traditional treats mostly given by the older generation.

And at the last house, an 84-year-old woman with her walking aid opened the door. She was smiling widely, her cheer inflicting a sense of spirit that made the children sing even louder.

Sint Maarten, Sint Maarten...
Mijn vader kijkt vanuit de Sesaamstraat 
Hij zei dat mijn liedje is een snoepje waard

Saint Martin, Saint Martin...
My father watches from Sesame Street
He says that my song is worth a treat

She handed over small mandarin oranges to each child and watched the children turn as they headed back to the street where Dutchman, I and their father watched over them.

The jaunt, the lanterns, the songs, the treats, they were all so refreshing and amusing, that I went home to Utrecht that night enriched with another Dutch experience — a new way of hoarding treats, without having to threaten the neighborhood residents with tricks!

The next day, Sunday, we had a more sober event with the Dutch family, tea time in the afternoon and the discussion on the table was: when are we celebrating Sinterklaas since 5 December, the eve of Sinterklaas' 'name day' falls on a Tuesday?"

Dutch mother spoke: She said the family has agreed that, for my sake, we will celebrate Sinterklaas the weekend before. They don't want me to leave early from work. The traffic between Amsterdam and Utrecht can be a pain and it would take me at least an hour to get to their place. Darn, I felt so guilty for making everyone move their schedules to accommodate mine, but on the other hand, how thoughtful of them!

 

Since I work for an international company, Sinterklaas is not really observed to the dot. Unlike my past employer, which was a Dutch company, we were sent out the door after 3pm so everyone could get home and celebrate the occasion.

"We have to do the lootjes trekken!" the Dutch mother announced.

Taking two pieces of paper, she then cut them into small pieces and wrote down each name of the Dutch family members, including me of course.

For the record, this year is my 5th episode of Sinterklaas. I now know the tradition very well. Well enough that I can predict the turn of events during the festivity…

Dutch brother-in-law positions the ladder leaning towards the chimney by the garage, they place a small bowl of water and pieces of carrots for Sinterklaas' horse outside the door and everyone scatters the gifts generously in the garden while the eager children are locked up in the attic. RINNNNGGG, the doorbell goes. "Sinterklaas is here!" the second Dutch brother-in-law shouts. Dutch sister-in-law quickly releases the already frantic children from the attic. Off they scramble with each other to the door, jumping, running and screaming on top of their lungs, their eyes full of life and wonderment when they see the loads of gifts that lay in wait for them in the garden, "Yehey Sinterklaaaaaaaaasssje!" The next on the agenda is the opening of the 100 and more gifts, one by one — yes, one by one.

Since the kids will be flooded with gifts, the adults will also have a separate banquet. We cast lots to exchange gifts, thus the Dutch term: lootjes trekken (drawing lots). I remember back home a similar practice that we observe during Christmas, the Manita-Manito.

On my first year here, I found it really odd that the Dutch do not give gifts during Christmas, but instead during Sinterklaas, via lootjes trekken.

I picked out a folded piece of paper from the small box Dutch mother handed to me and opened it, just peeking a bit. I saw the name and smiled.

In addition, we were supposed to write a nice little poem about the person. Ah, time to polish my Dutch grammar again! The searching for a gift sounded an apt and somewhat likable challenge, but the poem is definitely a daunting task.

Next week will be busy. Travelling for work and partly for pleasure, exercising my voting rights in society, visiting old friends, watching an English football game from the front row seat and — most importantly — preparing for Sinterklaas by buying gifts for 5 kids, practical whatnots for everyone in the Dutch family and a special gift for the adult family member whose name I have drawn.

For the latter, I feel excitement building up. Yeah, the child in me, still lives.

16 November 2006

Dutched Pinay

[Copyright Expatica 2006]

Subject: Sint Maarten, Sinterklaas, expat blog, Life in Holland

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