This year, I introduced my kids to Sinterklaas! Sinterklaas is the Dutch version of Santa Claus, and comes with an extremely amusing, sometimes confusing, occasionally racist narrative and backstory.
I’m a quarter Dutch (my paternal grandma was born in the States, but her parents immigrated from The Netherlands) and I spent one semester in college studying abroad in Utrecht. I was there in the Fall of 2005, which meant that I got to introduce many Dutchies to Halloween, and in turn they introduced me to Sinterklaas, celebrated on or around December 5th.
I’m going to recreate the conversation I had with my kids explaining the holiday which was based on memory alone, and so the details may or may not be true. Read this before you go look up the facts. Trust me, it’s funnier that way.
My son looked at our weekly calendar and saw what I had written for Saturday the 5th.
Son: Hey Mom, what’s…sin-der-class?!
Me: Ooh, it’s Sinterklaas! It’s the Dutch version of Santa Claus! Dutch people live in a country called The Netherlands, where I lived for a few months before you were born.
Son: So he comes and we get presents?!
Me: Well, Sinterklaas knows that we also celebrate Christmas, so I think he’ll just bring a small treat. The fun part is that you get to leave your shoes out and he puts the treat in your shoes!
Daughter: In my shoes?! YUCK!
Son: Yeah, YUCK!
Me: That’s not even the best part! See, Sinterklaas doesn’t live in the North Pole, he lives in Spain, and he comes to The Netherlands each year on a giant boat. And then they have a parade to welcome him.
Daughter: Ooh, I want a parade!!
Me: Well, the parades don’t happen here. And instead of elves, he has…helpers…named Zwarte Piet which means Black Pete because they’re all sooty from going down people’s fireplaces. (I chose the less controversial explanation.)
Daughter: EW they’re DIRTY!!
Me: And so, if you’re good, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet will put treats in your shoes, and will sometimes throw these little hard cookies at you called pepernoten. But if you’re not good, then Zwarte Piet will catch you and put you in a potato sack and take you in their boat back to Spain!
I finished with a big, excited grin on my face.
My kids looked back at me kinda horrified.
Son: I don’t wanna be in a sack full of potatoes!
Daughter: I want to go to Spain!
Me, laughing: Well, the sack is empty. They take the potatoes out first so your body can fit, but I’m sure they know that you’ve made good choices this year. And maybe someday we’ll go to Spain…just not in potato sacks.
Son: Does the boat come all the way here?
Me: Hmm, I don’t know. Maybe as far as Portland, and then – oh yeah I forgot! – he rides a white horse! He’ll probably take the horse the rest of the way.
Son: Won’t our shoes make the treats stinky?
Me: I’m sure the treats will be wrapped.
Then, the night of the 4th at bedtime, my son blurts out: Goodnight! I hope I don’t get taken to Spain in a potato sack!
I hope I haven’t scarred my kids…oops.
So I had introduced this holiday to my kids a few days in advance and then promptly forgot about it. Oregon leadership is urging us not to leave the house unless we really need to, and so I’m trying to do all Christmas shopping remotely. We’ve been doing school and getting our tree and decorating and researching, ordering, and making presents. In the middle of the day on the 4th, I remembered that in a fit of foolishness I had made extra work for myself by introducing yet another holiday to my beloved children. Shit! I thought. We didn’t have any Christmas candy in the house yet and we haven’t done any baking. I rifled through my kids’ leftover Halloween candy, wondering how I might be able to repurpose it.
I ran upstairs and interrupted my husband working on important plane business.
Me: WE DON’T HAVE ANY TREATS FOR THEIR SHOES SHIT!
Me: For Sinterklaas. I told the kids he was coming, and then forgot about having treats ready for it.
Husband: What traditionally goes in their shoes?
Me: Honestly, I’m not really sure.
Husband: Well, let’s see… He googles what to put in their shoes. We find lots of pictures of carrots. We come across one picture of shoes with a few stroopwafels inserted. (My absolute fave Dutch treat)
Me, gasping: OMG that’s right! I bought stroopwafels a while ago and never opened them!! I THINK WE STILL HAVE THEM!
(I often do this thing where I hide tasty treats in the pantry so that I won’t be tempted to eat them. Unfortunately, this often means that I completely forget about them.)
Husband: Define a while ago…
Me: Uuuhhh, you know, a couple years. I run to go dig them out of the pantry. Look! They only expired last year! AND THEY’RE STILL SEALED AND TOTALLY FRESH!
Husband: Totally fresh.
Me: Sinterklaas is saved!! It’s a Sinterklaas miracle!!!
Hopefully, next year I’ll have my act together a bit better, but I’d say Sinterklaas 2020 was a success! And by success, I mean that it happened. My husband forgot to have the kids set out their shoes, so we did that and wrapped up their delicious, not-at-all-too-old stroopwafels and placed them inside.
The next morning, we slept in and our kids found the treats, unwrapped them and dutifully waited for us to get up to inspect further. While they waited, my son had written us a hilarious note asking why Sinterklaas had left him a bath bomb. My only guess is that he thought the tissue-wrapped item looked like it contained toiletries.
For brunch we made the kids tea and had them place their wafels on top of their cups to warm and melt the gooey caramel, as is the custom. To my absolute horror – the kids declared that they don’t like them. My son said they tasted like caramel and worms and made him want to barf.
After all that. Just be thankful that you’re not stuck inside a potato sack right now, kids.