Sunday, December 12, 2010

Passing on Festive Traditions

 On Sunday morning my son woke and decided to treat us to a medley of various Sinterklaas songs; this despite the fact that Pakjesavond and the celebration of Sinterklaas passed a week ago. Obviously spurred on by the theme he hurried downstairs, took one of his shoes from the hall cupboard and placed it in the living room, in the same magical place that had proved profitable just a week or so before. He placed a carrot in his shoe and put some milk in a Tupperware bowl for Sint’s horse. And all this by 9am.

Explaining to my nearly three year old son why putting his shoe out last weekend was redundant was easy.
“Sinterklaas has gone back to Spain, with his horse and all his Zwarte Pieten,” I explained. “He’ll be back next year.”
“The shoe is for the Kerstman,” replies my smart son.
“Oh ok, well Father Christmas doesn’t put presents in shoes. He only comes to the house on Christmas Eve and that is a lot of sleeps away,” I told him.

He looked stumped. And of course why shouldn’t he. Looking deploringly at my husband, I tried to scramble an answer together that explained that Sinterklaas and Father Christmas are different beings (when in fact they are not), that they have different modes of transport (one has a horse and the other reindeer and a sleigh), they come at different times of the year (5 December and 25th December), put presents in different receptacles (one preferring a shoe over the stocking) and they have different types of helpers (Sinterklaas opting for Zwarte Pieten and Father Christmas making use of busy little elves to make toys). I did not even attempt to go into their living arrangements: why one chooses the warmer climate of Spain and the other lives in the rather cold, snowy Lapland. That is a conversation for much later, if he ever asks.

Of course, the one thing he got loud and clear was that Father Christmas also brings presents to good boys and girls across the world. So he placed the carrot back in the vegetable rack, his shoe back in the cupboard and handed me the tub of milk. Then he pointed to his stocking, and I reiterated that on Christmas Eve he could hang it on his bed and Father Christmas would fill it with presents, as long as he is a good boy…….

And that closed the conversation out for now. The discussion we would eventually have with our children about the Dutch Sinterklaas and the British version, that of Father Christmas, was a topic of conversation between me and my husband some time ago, long before our son was even born. To reconcile the two events seemed quite difficult when we talked about it, but it is something that needs to be done in a multi-cultural household.

The Dutch ‘do’ Christmas much more than they used to. The main celebration used to be Sinterklaas on the 5th December but Christmas has become more commercial here and now it is also a time of giving gifts. However, my husband’s childhood memories, and the traditions around Christmas are very different to mine. In England we do not celebrate Sinterklaas. Until ten years ago, I had never heard of it and knew nothing about it. It was all about Christmas for us.

So our first Christmas together was a unique and new experience for my Dutch partner: Christmas stockings, Christmas pudding, brandy butter, presents under the Christmas tree, mince pies, turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce and pulling Christmas crackers before tucking into lunch. This was all new to him, but for me, all traditional.

So now, every year, he directs the Sinterklaas celebration and I organise Christmas. This way we pass on our own holiday traditions to each other, and our children, and share the uniqueness of our culture with each other. Our son of course benefits as he gets two rounds of presents……. the luck of a child with a mother from England and a father from the Netherlands.

This was first published a year ago in my Expats@Home newsletter. If you want to receive future editions of my newsletter sign up at

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