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Sinterklaasje, bonne bonne bonne! Happy St. Nicholas Day!

st. nicholas, st. nicholas day

Sint and Piet hand puppets sent to us from Holland.

Much has been speculated about the negative ways in which divorce impacts children’s lives, but let’s for a moment look at the positive aspects of divorce, especially during the holiday season. My daughter not only has two bedrooms full of stuff she likes, she had two uniquely themed 5th birthday parties and will get to experience two Christmas mornings. On top of that, because her Dad is Dutch, she got a visit from Sinterklaas last night as well.

There’s a centuries-long tradition in the Netherlands of families exchanging gifts on Sinterklaasavond, which falls on December 5th every year, the day before the feast of Saint Nicholas. As you may know, Saint Nicholas is a historic figure, born in – get ready for it! – the year 270 AD. Saint Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, in modern-day Turkey, who was known for leaving poor people secret gifts. The real Saint Nicholas does serve as the inspiration for our Santa Claus, but the Dutch Sinterklaas being celebrated today is not Santa Claus.  

You were right, Robin! Sinterklaas is very different from Santa Claus, in that Sinterklaas arrives in Holland in early November on a boat from Spain, where he lives with his many helpers, the Zwarte Pieten, or Black Petes.  These are Sinterklaas’s elves, in a way, except for the fact that they’re portrayed by Dutch actors in blackface.  Yeah.  The whole thing is sort of ridiculous and difficult to explain, even for Dutch people, as best captured by David Sedaris’s hilarious and now iconic tale, 6 to 8 Black Men.  (If you’ve never heard Sedaris read this story, you must.  I was hoping to embed video or audio of his performance here, but most the videos available on YouTube are either just the first half of the story, or are broken down into 3 parts.  Why not do yourself a favor and just buy David Sedaris Live at Carnegie Hall?  It makes a great Sinterklaas gift.)

And speaking of Sinterklaas gifts… sure, you may know about Dutch children leaving a carrot in their wooden shoes for Sint’s white horse Amerigo (who, like Rudolph, land on rooftops) in exchange for chocolate letters, pepernoten and kruidnoten.  But what you probably don’t know is that when the Dutch exchange gifts on Sinterklaasavond, they’re not usually the type of gifts American kids would get on Christmas.  (No, Sint will not bring you an Xbox.  Sorry.)  Sinterklaas gifts are typically small trinkets, sometimes wrapped in a goofy, gross or generally complicated way, and often exchanged with a silly poem written about the recipient.  Of course, the times, they are a-changing in Holland as well as everywhere else, and some of these customs are getting lost.  Whereas once upon a time, Christmas itself was a solely religious holiday in the Netherlands, some families now exchange gifts on Christmas as well, and kids get presents from the “Kerstman,” who is the equivalent of America’s Santa Claus.

Since I’m no longer married to a Dutchman, I will likely live out the rest of my days ignoring the fact that “Sinterklaas Is Jarig,” letting my daughter instead celebrate that part of her heritage with her Dad.  Because she was a good girl, Sint brought her the Tangled book last night.  Theoretically, if she’d been bad, Zwarte Piet would have stuffed her in his sack, beaten her with a switch, and carried her off to Spain… but that’s not allowed for in our custody agreement.  (I’d hate to take a mythical creature to family court.)

Despite my divorce, I do have a lot of fond memories of my Sinterklaases of yore, since we always threw our own little Sinterklaas party with friends in New York, replete with a coloring contest and traditional Dutch fare.  I can’t say I’ll really miss eating split pea soup and rye bread, or gaining ten pounds from all the Dutch chocolate we’d been sent, but I did really enjoy celebrating something that seemed like it was just ours, outside of the commercial hullabaloo associated with Christmas.  I guess it’s just time for me to create some new holiday traditions for my daughter and I to enjoy, you know, without any questionably racist overtones.

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