Experiencing Sinterklaas for the first time, American blogger Ken finds it hard to face the present-giving process and yearns for the good old American Santa.
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 employs millions of elves according to the movie The Polar Express. He loves animals, 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. But I never recall Sinterklaas coming to my house in the States to do his business.
Naturally, 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! Anything that involves me getting gifts (oh and giving) is good with me!
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 pellet-size ginger cookies. The Dutch eat them by the handful. They are on office and shop counters in bowls. People hand them to you as gifts. It was always nice and surprising to receive a handful of ginger pellets from a black-faced stranger on the street. And they were all over the streets. Pigeons love them. Although Kruidnoten are just not the prettiest things in the world, and I am not the biggest fan of ginger cookies, I discovered a few things going for them; they sell them chocolate-covered–milk, white and dark.
No Christmas tree before Sint returns to Spain
Sinterklaas Dag is 6 December. Until then it is all and only about Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas has so much power here in Holland that you are not allowed technically to celebrate Christmas until it’s over. I know this because the American in me came out on 1 December when my need for a Christmas tree caused me to harass my friend Jur until he agreed to get one early. 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 sooo excited. This sweet little Dutch man greeted us. I watched as Jur and he talked tree in Dutch. There was a problem. I could tell.
I whispered to Jur over the tree tops, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing” Jur mouthed, shaking the tree in front of him (I think to cover our conversation) “we are not supposed to buy a tree until after Sinterklaas.” He quickly moved on.
I followed him through the mud–It was raining again—and eventually caught up.
“We can’t have a tree?”
“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!
I was paranoid as we drove through Den Haag with the tree on top of our car, scared that the Politie might stop as and interrogate us about our tree. Also if we have it by the window and put lights on it, will are neighbours turn us in? Aaargh! Christmas Trees in Holland pre 6 December are stressful.
Caught in the ‘Kruidnoten rush’
On the 5th I went to Jur’s Sister house for dinner with the entire family. It was lovely: Food, wine, then –just as we were happily mingling– we were startled by a bang bang bang on the door, which flew open giving passage to a bucket-full of kruidnoten which pelted all over us and onto the floor! People screamed “Zwarte Pietje, Zwarte Pietje!” It was kind of a shocking, and awkward moment, as I found myself rushing with others to gather as many Kruidnoten as I could. I got caught up in ‘Kruidnoten rush’. It is instinctual for me to fight for sweets when they are thrown in the air.
998 gifts and three hours later…
Following the Zwarte Piet excitement and 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–I was unwittingly embarking on a 2- to 3-hour event…
Every gift was opened, one at a time as we sat around the table. We would pass every gift around and everyone commented on it and then, after that, the recipient of the gift would get up and retrieve the next gift for another person. They too would open it and pass it along…There were 998 Dutch gifts on the wall! Nine hundred and ninety-eight Dutch gifts on the Wall! 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 three gifts each!
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 my back was hurting from sitting and from shoving the party around for kruidnoten on the floor. 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 mumbled with irony from my corner of the table as I reached for more wine. Round six, Wibrand got socks. Round seven Angelique got a calendar. In round 11 I got a bird feeder, which explained why I got bird seed in round eight. Round 14 I got bird peanuts which, for a fleeting moment I hopefully thought were edible; I was becoming hungry. I passed them around again…
Finally the last gift—it was for me—and, I was told, known as a ‘Dutch Surprise’. I held a foiled-up long and heavy roll that looked like a giant burrito in my hands. It was a gift made by Dieneke, Jur and Cathy’s family friend. (She and her husband and daughter had joined us for the evening, which I loved, but at one point I uncharitably calculated that they added one hour and sixteen minutes to the gift-giving marathon…) I slowly started to unroll the ‘Dutch Surprise’ to discover that it was a large tortilla-shaped piece of leather covered in peanut butter, syrup, cooked noodles, chopped up sausage and I think ketchup and they all yelled “Surprise!” I sat there speechless, stuff dripping from my hands and just didn’t get it. Apparently, hidden in the goop is a trinket. There was, and I found it. I asked if I was supposed to pass it around. “No!” “Not that!” No one wanted to touch it!
That concluded my initiation into Sinterklaas Dag. I eventually excused myself; it was late and I was so tired (too much wine) I had to sleep. I 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 sore. I lay down and I could still hear the Dutch Sinterklaas celebration still going on. In my head I sang myself to sleep: “Here comes Santa Claus. Here comes Santa Claus right down Santa Claus lane…“