Nine years, plus three before our family move. That’s twelve years in the US.We’ve been married 19, so most of my married life I spent in the US. Kind of cool, now I think of it.
I dream in English, feel like I belong here and miss only my family and friends.I keep forgetting about Dutch Holidays, instead focusing on the American ones.
Yet there is one, that is so embedded in my system, I can’t seem to forget this one.
It starts in November, when the air gets colder and the trees are bare. Creating dark silhouettes against the quickly darkening sky in the evening. A pale moon shines through the branches of the trees and before I realize it, I am belting out: “zie de maan schijnt door de bomen”.
Sinterklaas, or for those of you who don’t speak Dutch, Saint Nicholas, is the bringer of gifts in the Netherlands on December 5th.
As far as I know, there isn’t a single other Holiday that has such a long anticipation time.
I know that some people will get all excited when the first Christmas decorations are starting to appear in the stores, and can’t wait for the radio to start playing Christmas music exclusively, but this isn’t the same kind of anticipation.
Children in America know that Santa comes on Christmas Eve, and even though he sometimes pays a visit to the local mall or the neighborhood house, there is nothing to fear or expect until Christmas Eve.
Unlike his friend Sinterklaas. This guy arrives by steamboat in the second week of November and for all the parents this means a solid night of sleep is over till December 6th.
As soon as the saint sets foot on Dutch soil, he and his helpers will start getting busy. Children can place their shoes in front of the fire place or in the modern houses, under the windowsill and if you have been good, your shoe might be filled with goodies (like pepernoten and your initial in chocolade, so happy my name starts with a big fat E and not a skimpy I!) and small presents.
Placing your shoe is a whole ritual, not as simple as just put your shoe there.
No, first you’ll have to write a letter, or make a picture for Saint Nick or start working on a creative wish list (I remember me cutting out pictures from toy store flyers, to ensure Sinterklaas really understands what I mean when I said ‘fancy drawing set’ so I wouldn’t end up with crappy cheap pencils.)
Then you have to take care of the horse. That’s right: Sinterklaas has a white horse called Amerigo and if it wasn’t for this magical horse, Sinterklaas would be unable to fill shoes all over the entire country. So you’ll have to add some hay, a carrot, some sugar lumps, it all needs to go inside your shoe or at least near your shoe. (If you would provide a bowl of water, that would be better if placed next to the shoe, for obvious reasons!)
Next up is singing: you can’t expect any goodies if you don’t sing a bunch of special songs. And no, one is not going to do it: I think three is probably the bare minimum here.
Finally, the ritual is done and the child can go to bed. Will it sleep well? I doubt it! The anticipation is too strong: ‘What if he doesn’t come this night?’ ‘What if he found out about me not playing the piano yesterday and that day I pinched my sister?’ Every unexpected noise could be him, or his helpers. ‘Did you hear that? That noise! It came from the roof! I bet it’s him!’ ‘Oh dear, I need to go pee, but I can’t go downstairs now. What if he sees me? He will be upset and takes the goodies back.’
If parents are lucky enough to have kids that sleep, they will be in for an early morning. Can’t really blame the kids: you wouldn’t stay in bed if there is a chance of a generous filled shoe with goodies or gifts!
And when the kids do run downstairs and do find their shoes filled, there is the after ritual: screaming into the chimney or out the window: “Thank you Sinterklaas!” Because you never know if he is still hanging around somewhere and he needs to know we appreciate it.
Many parents have found creative ways to make sure the ‘shoe setting’ isn’t going over the top.
“No honey, you can’t set your shoe tonight. We received a note from Sinterklaas that he won’t be in this neighborhood tonight. But he will be back here on Tuesday.”
And how upset you got when you discovered that your friend two houses down the street did get something in her shoe.
Now I think of it: I am actually really happy that I never had these parenting difficulties: my kids were really young when we moved to the US. Only our oldest child vaguely remembers placing his shoe in front of our fire place. Our youngest is easily grossed out and exclaimed in pure disgust: “Ew! He puts stuff in your shoe? Your stinky, sweaty shoe, full of germs? That’s gross!”
I like anticipation, I loved Sinterklaas when I was a child and enjoyed it as a teacher. Not sure if I would have equally enjoyed it as a parent. For me the Christmas anticipation is enough.
But the songs? I kind of miss them. Although I wonder if the song: “Dag sinterklaasje” is among the favorite of the parents; saying goodbye to the saint and waving them all farewell till next November, finally been able to have a good night of sleep again.