Dec 5, 2013

Get Me Off This Crazy Holiday Train

On November 11th, we celebrated the holiday of Sint-Maartens, originally a French holiday, now observed in various regions around the world. In The Netherlands, it's similar to Halloween in that it involves children going door to door soliciting for candy, but with more singing, and less sexy pizza costumes. Instead of dressing up, the kids carry home-made lanterns while singing songs about Sint Maarten (Saint Martin) and in return, get candy. Or maybe mandarin oranges. Or, if they're really lucky, peanuts and black licorice. We also celebrated Halloween a few weeks prior, and while it is almost entirely an American and British expat affair here, more and more Dutch locals are joining in each year. This made Mia furious. It's not fair! They shouldn't get to celebrate Halloween with us! But Mia, you get to celebrate Dutch holidays. I know, but we also have to live here! A 10 year old's life can be so tragic. 

Just a handful of days later, Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) and his Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) arrived in Amsterdam, and the holiday festivities kicked into high gear. If you're not familiar with Sinter Klaas, it is not associated with Christmas in any way, and is instead an entirely harmless, joyful celebration of cardboard-inspired cookies, sweaty shoes stuffed with candy, obnoxious wrapping paper, and the timeless tradition of dressing up in black-face and then insisting that it's not racist. Every year there are heated discussions, and every year the use of hideous wrapping paper continues, with blatant disregard for good taste. I get that they're not trying to be offensive, but it's 2013-- we should be a little more evolved by now.

Sinterklaas parade in Amsterdam

This year we've learned more about other fun aspects of the Sinterklaas tradition: the Surprise, and what I like to call The Poetry Slam. The Surprise is a small, inexpensive gift that is given as part of a gift exchange, but it has to be wrapped in a creative and handmade way, reflecting the hobbies or interests of the person receiving the gift. So if the person enjoys online Gaming, for example, you might turn a box into a game console, but leave it empty to represent the sad, cavernous void they are trying to fill. And then you make a poem where you gently make fun of the person, such as: "You play so many online games, guess that makes you super lames." But you would go on and on until you've crushed their soul and extinguished every last flame of confidence and self-esteem. It's all in good fun. 

(Speaking of good fun: last year we went to a festive Zwarte Piet village, about an hour North of Amsterdam, located in an old fishing village-turned outdoor museum. Toward the end of the day we stopped in the Rhyme House, where two of the Petes helped the kids write silly poems in Dutch. We spent about 20 minutes in the cottage, just us and the 2 Petes, until a woman came in, seemingly alarmed, and asked what we were doing. Looking around, I was about to answer, well, we're just sitting here, writing poetry with two white women who are dressed up like black Renaissance pageboys. Of course, that wasn't what she meant-- as it turned out the village had closed 15 minutes earlier, and we needed to leave. Oh, right. We'll just leave then-- not like we were looking for a reason to get out of this entirely normal, and not at all awkward situation. ...)

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are beloved by the Dutch, and when I say beloved it is in an excessively-enunciating-all-three-syllables kind of way. BELOVED. It is associated with fun and frivolity, and all things happy and silly. Most every adult in the country has such happy memories of it from their own childhoods, there is an shocked outcry when outsiders throw out accusations of racism. There's no denying that the tradition has racist origins, and continues to propagate those stereotypes in an alarming, if also a bizarrely well-intentioned, way. Criticizing Zwarte Piet is similar to suggesting to Americans that apple pie tastes like communism, or more realistically, that Thanksgiving can be a painful and unpleasant day for Native Americans. But, but-- carbohydrates!! will be all they can say in an outraged stupor. And besides, it's not like we continue to propagate hurtful stereotypes of Native Americans. Now, shhhh, the Redskins game is on.  

I love the Dutch people, and I'm sure that, thanks to their commitment to inclusion and the Polder Model, eventually they will find a way to uphold the spirit of this unique holiday while modernizing the implementation. And by the time they do, I promise you, America will still be cheering for the Washington Redskins.

Speaking of Thanksgiving-- here is how you might celebrate Thanksgiving if you are an American living in Amsterdam. First you will have to find a poultry seller, whom you can order a turkey from in advance, and then pay the equivalent of $70 USD for it. When you pick up the bird, it will in no way resemble the prepackaged, sanitized, vacuum-packed meat lump you have bought previously in America, but will look exactly like what it is: a recently slaughtered animal carcass, which you will schlep across town on your bike and drop off with your friend, who will have to remove the remaining feathers and other tidbits before cooking it. You will then make a run to the local American import store to pick up some exorbitantly priced canned pumpkin, and where you might not be able to resist the allure of Reeses Peanut Butter cups, even at almost $4 a package. You will spend the day cooking and baking in your compact European kitchen with your compact European appliances. Then you will load up your family and half of a Thanksgiving dinner on your bikes, and ride to your friend's house while hoping she doesn't hate you for the turkey carcass. The evening will be spent in the celebration of simple carbohydrates, with friends who have become your family abroad, while thanking God for your innate ability to happen to live in a country where you are blissfully unaware of anything having to do with Black Friday. But the next morning you will arise at 4 AM anyway to head to your favorite discount store, bang on the doors until it opens 5 hours later, and threaten to beat the crap out of anyone who gets in your way. Ahhh, traditions. 

That's how it might have happened. Who knows really? Glutenous holiday binges leave me a bit confused-- we may have started celebrating Hanukkah somewhere in there too, for all I know. However, I do know that Sinterklaas has his last hurrah tomorrow, December 5th, and on the 6th, Christmas in the Netherlands will officially begin. At which point I will blast some holiday music, pull out the decorations and my to-do list, and in the true essence of Christmas, stick my head in the dryer and cry. 

And because I'm me, there isn't a single picture of the turkey, but here's a bunch of astoundingly amateur cell phone pics from the most of the recent festivities. 
Sint Maartens with friends, lamps, and one blinding reflective decal. 

Oh yeah, we took a short trip to Germany and stumbled on a Christmas Market in Bonn.
It was while I was trapped in an ornament store for 10 minutes that I realized I hate
Christmas stores. Bah humbug.

So worth it.

Thanksgiving Amsterdam Style, served at 7 PM with nary a green bean casserole in sight. 

Mia's Disco Club surprise box. I told her it was amazingly accurate, based on my extensive clubbing experience. 

Singing to their Dutch clogs, complete with carrots for Sinterklaas' horse. (If I wanted to be accurate, most Dutch children leave out regular shoes, not clogs-- but then, when have I ever wanted to be accurate?) 

Enjoying the Holidays so far?


John said...


Bardsleyland said...

Thanks John, I meant to provide a link to a similar article with some background info, but the NYTimes one sums it up well-- especially the recent happenings this year with the UN.

Can't believe I forgot Sinterklaas is one word-- it's corrected now. Obviously, my Dutch still leaves a lot to be desired.

Also, Sint and Peit came to the kids shool today, and though I didn't get to see it, the school previously decided that Piet's appearance would be altered this year, in accordance with the Mayor of Amsterdam's statements.