Many people have asked me if the Dutch celebrate Christmas like Americans do. The quick answer is no. Christmas does happen on December 25, but it is a pretty low key affair. The big event of the season is on December 5 and the weeks leading up to it…it is called Sinterklaas.

Sinterklass is celebrated on Saint Nicholas Day, which is December 5. St Nicholas is the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. The biggest similarities between Santa Clause and Sinterklaas is that they are men who bring presents and they wear a lot of red.

Sinterklaas is an elderly, elegant man who has long white hair and beard. He wears a red cape and kind of looks like a Catholic bishop. He has a big pointy hat too. He carries a staff or stick and a giant book full of children’s names. This is his resource in knowing if a child has been good or bad. Sinterklaas does not have a sleigh, instead he rides a white horse and he and this horse travel from roof to roof of Dutch homes.

Sinterklaas has a helper named Black Piet. In fact there are many helpers and they are all called Black Piet. They all have certain jobs, like steering the boat (more on that later) and another one climbs on top of the roofs. The origin of Black Piet goes back to the Moorish occupation of Spain. But today, people basically believe that Black Piet has a black face because he has come down so many chimneys. Black Piet is dressed as a 17th century page and he always carries a bag of candy for good children.

Sinterklaas arrives from Spain by steamboat in mid-November. He arrives at a different port city each year and this is a HUGE event. His arrival is carried on live TV and the streets are packed with families waiting to see Sinterklaas. There is a parade, candy is thrown at the children, and there are many songs to be sung. Once the children know that Sinterklaas is in the Netherlands, it is time for the shoes to come out. Children put out one shoe usually by the fireplace and they sing a variety of songs. In the morning, there will hopefully be a present in the shoe. This ritual goes on until December 5. Some families put out a shoe once a week, some do it more often…it is totally up to the parents. Then you have the big night of the 5th where families get together for a party. Traditionally songs are sung and poems are read out loud, and then children get lots of presents. And of course, lots of fun Dutch treats to eat.

The most popular treats are Kruidnoten and they are small round gingerbread-like cookies. They also come covered in chocolate. I have never seen so much marzipan in my life, it is at every single store in more shapes that you can even imagine. Big favorites are clementines or mandarin oranges and naturally they are from Spain. As popular as chocolate coins are in the USA, they are super popular here too. Everyone gets a chocolate letter, their first name’s initial, and it is a pretty good size and it comes in a variety of flavors.

As for Christmas, it is not such a big deal here. Some families will have a small celebration with just a few presents for the children and some have nothing at all. There are Christmas trees here and the decorations look just like the ones in America. But children get more presents for Sinterklaas than for Christmas. The big difference in gift giving is that there is not this monument of presents under the tree or near the shoe. Children do write lists for Sinterklaas and they will get just a few things. The stores are full of stuff for the holidays, but parents don’t seem to go crazy beyond crazy to make their child happy with a pile of gifts.

Sinterklaas is celebrated in other countries other than the Netherlands: Belgium and the United States. I found out that Dutch American communities will have Sinterklaas, especially in New York. In Rhinebeck, Sinterklaas crosses the Hudson River and they have a parade to welcome him from Spain.

Since the day that Sinterklaas arrives here, there are daily news updates on TV about what he is up to. There is even a website that you can follow his adventures and even put your name in his giant book (and yes, I did put my name in the book and he said my name out loud). This is a country of 17 million and it feels like everyone is on the same page, all getting ready to party and have fun. There is NOTHING religious about this holiday at all, so people from all faiths can be involved.

In our house, there will be two celebrations. Sinterklaas has been going on now for a few weeks and even my shoe had something in it. We will then be part of a big family party. And because I am now living here, we will also have a more American style Christmas. Then on December 26, the country has a holiday for Boxing Day, just like in England.

In the month of December I will be watching many of the Christmas cartoons and films that I love. Naturally, I have my collection of Christmas cds and there is a radio station here that plays Christmas music 24 hours a day. What I have realized about being away from the former home that I love is that sometimes you can even miss the tacky things. Sometimes tacky can be a comfort and sometimes it can be really eye rolling bad. It just depends on how tacky my mood is.

Later this month, I will tell you about New Year’s Eve. I was stunned when I found out what happens here. I will give you a clue: what does these three have in common? Katy Perry, Boston Pops and Love American Style?

Recommended viewing:  Christmas in Connecticut. This is a wonderful holiday comedy that stars Barbara Stanwyck. This film is timeless, even though it is over 50 years old. Trust me, this is fun to watch, especially around Christmas.

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