Stuck Inside a Potato Sack

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!

Husband: What?

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.

Far Away Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!

Today I’m using an idea I got from reading Steven’s blog about spending Thanksgiving as an American overseas.

In the Fall of 2005, I studied abroad in The Netherlands through a program run by the University of California system. My destination was University College Utrecht in The Netherlands, which is an international university that, at the time, housed and educated roughly two-thirds Dutch students and the other third students from all over the world (of around a total of 750 students). My personal circle of friends included Americans, Dutchies, Australians, Germans, a Swede, and a few assorted others. It was one of the best, richest, most exciting experiences of my entire life.

For Thanksgiving, the UC program people put on a traditional holiday dinner for all the American students, who each got to bring a plus one. My boyfriend (now husband) was visiting me that week, and so he got to come and join in the merriment. For most others, that meant a non-American student got invited to their very first Thanksgiving dinner.

I honestly don’t remember much about the food at all, but the experience was so much more than what we were eating. At that point in the semester, we’d been away from home for four months. The days were growing short and cold, and many of us were starting to feel twinges of homesickness. Having the familiarity of tradition, familiar foods, and my boyfriend there by my side made me feel comforted and joyful.

I found a blurry picture I took of the food!

What I enjoyed most was the exchange of culture that took place. The non-Americans had so many questions about why we ate certain things and why this custom and compared it to their own. It was an invitation for me to stop and think about customs and traditions I had always taken for granted. To see myself, my country, my culture through the eyes of foreigners is an incredible experience. I highly recommend it.

When the dinner was over, we went outside for the short walk back to our units (dorms), and upon setting foot outside we found that it had started snowing. The Californians, me included, promptly lost their shit and started playing in it, not ready for the night to be over. It was a special dusting on top of a very special evening.

Frolicking in the snow!

Now that I think about it, that Thanksgiving feels similar to this year in that I’m separated from family. At least in 2005 it was by choice.

I’ve often stuck my nose up at the American tradition to celebrate gratitude by wallowing in excess. Doesn’t it make more sense that you’ll better appreciate what you have by going without? With that in mind, this year I’m making a special point to be grateful for my family and friends, especially those I haven’t seen in far too long. I’m not on the other side of the world this year, even though it often feels that way. Hopefully, we’ll be together again sooner rather than later.

Counting my blessings, and I’m hoping you have many to count as well.


Day 26

Reblog: Tiny snickerdoodles, burlap sacks, and blackface

I originally wrote this post last year, when I had 7.2 dear and loyal readers.  I’m phoning it in today and spreading some Sinterklaas cheer because everyone needs to celebrate Christmas like the Dutch do – early, and with lots of racism.  Enjoy!

——–

In other words, Happy Sinterklaas!!!!

For those of you who may not know, I spent a glorious and exciting semester abroad in the Netherlands in the fall of 2005, which means that I got to celebrate Sinterklaas for the very first time.  For purposes of context, I am also almost finished reading Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris (I recommend) and he devoted a chapter to Sinterklaas and how awesomely funny it is to Americans.  In the same spirit, I am going to share my love for this wonderfully racist and quirky holiday with all y’all.

Sinterklaas is the celebration of Saint Nicholas Day, and it falls on December 5th.  The Dutchie version of Saint Nick is the former bishop of Turkey and lives in Spain.  He’s still a white dude wearing red, just add a pope’s hat and maybe a little bit of a tan from the Spanish sun.  What I don’t get is that many Dutchies don’t like Turkish immigrants and think they should go back home, yet they welcome this man every year.  Maybe it’s just because Sinterklaas goes home before wearing out his welcome?  Or maybe Turkish immigrants just need to bring presents with them when they come.  Take note, Turks.

Utrecht Sinterklaas parade Nov 2011

Sinterklaas is much more practical than our American Santa Claus.  Flying reindeer?  Yeah right.  Around the world in just one night?  Please.  Of course, Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat from Spain in mid November and spends those few weeks riding his white horse in parades and handing out goodies before he heads back home on December 6th.  The main boat arrival into Rotterdam (I think it’s Rotterdam) is televised with great excitement, and then numerous other smaller boat arrivals take place for smaller villages with their own harbors.  For those villages without a harbor, Sinterklaas usually arrives by horse, as he did in Utrecht where I was living.

Now, Saint Nick doesn’t come alone.  He has “six to eight” helpers, each named Swarte Piet (translation: Black Pete), who are usually young men in startling blackface with bright red lips wearing bright colored tunics with puffy sleeves and feathers in their equally bright, fluffy hats.  Why blackface?  The original explanation is that Swarte Pieten are slaves Sinterklaas saved from Ethiopia (what was he doing in Ethiopia??) and are now sooo grateful to be saved that they stick around and help him deliver gifts and torment kids (more on the tormenting later).  The newer, more PC explanation is that Piet has black soot all over his gosh-darn face from going down all those chimneys to deliver gifts every year.  Hmmm, maybe Piet should ask for some moist towelettes from Sinterklaas this year.

Swarte Pieten!!

really??! The Dutch teach em young….

The most horrifying part for me was going to the parade to see Sinterklaas and his horse gallantly trot into Utrecht to the delight of little boys and girls…who were also dressed in blackface.  What the what?!  It is one thing for legal adults to smear their faces and portray former slaves, but apparently Dutch parents do this to their kids to get them into the holiday spirit.  Worse still, is that the Dutch see nothing wrong with this and my Dutch friends insisted that I calm down (this is one thing that I was told consistently during my stay in the Netherlands, that as an American I needed to calm the fuck down.  Good thing they have lots of coffeeshops for that.)

So, where were we?  Sinterklaas comes from Spain on his boat with Swarte Pieten, switches to his white horse and then proceeds to parade through the city, waving and handing out goodies.  This is where Swarte Piet pegs the onlookers with tiny snickerdoodles, or pepernoten.  Seriously, they run around and throw handfuls of these things at people (not to them).  Maybe there is a point system, more points for kids and the elderly.  Pepernoten are quarter sized, hard, not-very-tasty gingerbread-like-things, and it seems that Swarte Piet has the right idea that they are better suited as weapons than as sweets.

Now we get to the excitement of the night of December 5th.  Traditionally, cute little blonde Dutch kids would put their painfully uncomfortable wooden shoes out by the fireplace and leave some goodies for Sinterklaas, Swarte Piet, but most often carrots and hay for the white horse (looking back, now I get why the white horse gets all the love…).  In return, the shoes would be filled with candies and a small present.  Nowadays, Dutchies leave their shoes by a heater or, as I was taught, right outside either the bedroom door or on the front or back porch and hope that the white horse doesn’t leave some other kind of stinky gift in there.  One awesome Sinterklaas goodie kids can expect is a big-ass piece of chocolate in the shape of the first letter of their first name.

mmmm chocolate letter….

What happens if you’re bad, you ask?  In America you just get coal, and you should consider yourselves freaking lucky, my friends.  Sinterklaas apparently doesn’t take any shit from anyone, and if you’re bad he sends his Swarte Pieten after you, and you know that these former slaves know a thing or two about corporal punishment.  Swarte Pieten carry burlap sacks with them, and if they encounter a bad child, they put that poor, helpless soul in the bag, drag him outside, beat him with a switch, and then if the situation warrants it, they kidnap him and take him back to Spain.  What they do with this kid once he gets to Spain, I have no idea.  Maybe he’s broken down and retrained Jason Bourne-style to  become part of the next generation of cutthroat Swarte Pieten.  I heard that in the old days, family friends would take turns coming to each other’s houses dressed as Sinterklaas and Swarte Piet to perform some of these fear-inducing rituals on their kids, but nowadays parents just tell these stories to their kids to hopefully still scare them into submission.

During their stay in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas and Swarte Piet visit many public places like town squares and shopping malls and schools.  He made sure not to miss coming to University College Utrecht during one of our lunch periods.  There we were, eating some sort of mystery pastry (the Dutch seem to get a kick out of making yummy looking pastry and then filling it with something heinous, like meat and peas), when all of a sudden six to eight black men came sprinting into the dining hall, chucking handfuls of pepernoten at us.  Now, this university is an international university, run in English and with an American grading system, so many of the students (about 1/3 of the student body) were not Dutch, and we had a good American representation.  Well, us Americans thought, “What the fuck?  These crazy-ass black men run all up in here and throw disgusting, tooth-cracking cookies at us and we’re just gonna take it?  No, sir!”  And we did what came naturally.  We threw the pepernoten right back, along with some food for good measure.  Like hell we were gonna get beaten with switches….although, come to think of it, Spain probably would have been really nice that time of year.

Then in came Sinterklaas, and we straightened up a bit.  I remember he said something to us in Dutch, and then the moment I had been dreading – our Dutch language professor made us non-Dutchies learn a Sinterklaas song and we had to get up and sing it to Sinterklaas himself in front of the whole dining hall.

See how uncomfortable I am?

I did my best to mouth the words (what little of them I knew) and hide my voice in with the rest.  At that point, I would have preferred a small beating instead.  After Sinterklaas left, the food fight resumed.  Boo-yah.

the aftermath

Aside from Sinterklaas giving the kids gifts, I learned about how Dutch families exchange gifts for the holiday.  Usually families choose names so that each person only buys one gift (I like this so far).  It is customary to creatively wrap the gift in order to disguise what is inside, and also to make the wrapping somehow significant to the recipient.  For instance, my group of friends chose names and I chose my Dutch friend Floris.  He likes maps and travel, and so I wrapped his gift in a map.  I remember my friend Shady wrapped her gift and placed it on the plate of a place setting from our dining hall, using a plastic tray and all the stolen silverware and dishes.  I forget the significance…..but I think it was for Jozef who liked to eat a lot.  What also must accompany the gift is a poem about the recipient.  This poem usually makes reference to what their gift may be and/or pokes fun at the person’s character traits/defects.  Yet another small look into the darker, meaner underbelly of Dutch culture.

our Sinterklaas celebration! pepernoten, speculaas, and see’s!

So there you have it.  Sinterklaas 101.  So tonight, remember to leave your shoes out…and hope that you don’t wake up bruised on the Spanish shoreline.  Or do, you know, if you like that kind of thing.

Sinterklaas, goedheiligman!
Trek uwe beste tabberd an,
Reis daar mee naar Amsterdam,
Van Amsterdam naar Spanje,
Daar Appelen van Oranje,
Daar Appelen van granaten,
Die rollen door de straten.

Tiny snickerdoodles, burlap sacks, and blackface

In other words, Happy Sinterklaas!!!!

For those of you who may not know, I spent a glorious and exciting semester abroad in the Netherlands in the fall of 2005, which means that I got to celebrate Sinterklaas for the very first time.  For purposes of context, I am also almost finished reading Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris (I recommend) and he devoted a chapter to Sinterklaas and how awesomely funny it is to Americans.  In the same spirit, I am going to share my love for this wonderfully racist and quirky holiday with all y’all.

Sinterklaas is the celebration of Saint Nicholas Day, and it falls on December 5th.  The Dutchie version of Saint Nick is the former bishop of Turkey and lives in Spain.  He’s still a white dude wearing red, just add a pope’s hat and maybe a little bit of a tan from the Spanish sun.  What I don’t get is that many Dutchies don’t like Turkish immigrants and think they should go back home, yet they welcome this man every year.  Maybe it’s just because Sinterklaas goes home before wearing out his welcome?  Or maybe Turkish immigrants just need to bring presents with them when they come.  Take note, Turks.

Utrecht Sinterklaas parade Nov 2011

Sinterklaas is much more practical than our American Santa Claus.  Flying reindeer?  Yeah right.  Around the world in just one night?  Please.  Of course, Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat from Spain in mid November and spends those few weeks riding his white horse in parades and handing out goodies before he heads back home on December 6th.  The main boat arrival into Rotterdam (I think it’s Rotterdam) is televised with great excitement, and then numerous other smaller boat arrivals take place for smaller villages with their own harbors.  For those villages without a harbor, Sinterklaas usually arrives by horse, as he did in Utrecht where I was living.

Now, Saint Nick doesn’t come alone.  He has “six to eight” helpers, each named Swarte Piet (translation: Black Pete), who are usually young men in startling blackface with bright red lips wearing bright colored tunics with puffy sleeves and feathers in their equally bright, fluffy hats.  Why blackface?  The original explanation is that Swarte Pieten are slaves Sinterklaas saved from Ethiopia (what was he doing in Ethiopia??) and are now sooo grateful to be saved that they stick around and help him deliver gifts and torment kids (more on the tormenting later).  The newer, more PC explanation is that Piet has black soot all over his gosh-darn face from going down all those chimneys to deliver gifts every year.  Hmmm, maybe Piet should ask for some moist towelettes from Sinterklaas this year.

Swarte Pieten!!

really??! The Dutch teach em young….

The most horrifying part for me was going to the parade to see Sinterklaas and his horse gallantly trot into Utrecht to the delight of little boys and girls…who were also dressed in blackface.  What the what?!  It is one thing for legal adults to smear their faces and portray former slaves, but apparently Dutch parents do this to their kids to get them into the holiday spirit.  Worse still, is that the Dutch see nothing wrong with this and my Dutch friends insisted that I calm down (this is one thing that I was told consistently during my stay in the Netherlands, that as an American I needed to calm the fuck down.  Good thing they have lots of coffeeshops for that.)

So, where were we?  Sinterklaas comes from Spain on his boat with Swarte Pieten, switches to his white horse and then proceeds to parade through the city, waving and handing out goodies.  This is where Swarte Piet pegs the onlookers with tiny snickerdoodles, or pepernoten.  Seriously, they run around and throw handfuls of these things at people (not to them).  Maybe there is a point system, more points for kids and the elderly.  Pepernoten are quarter sized, hard, not-very-tasty gingerbread-like-things, and it seems that Swarte Piet has the right idea that they are better suited as weapons than as sweets.

Now we get to the excitement of the night of December 5th.  Traditionally, cute little blonde Dutch kids would put their painfully uncomfortable wooden shoes out by the fireplace and leave some goodies for Sinterklaas, Swarte Piet, but most often carrots and hay for the white horse (looking back, now I get why the white horse gets all the love…).  In return, the shoes would be filled with candies and a small present.  Nowadays, Dutchies leave their shoes by a heater or, as I was taught, right outside either the bedroom door or on the front or back porch and hope that the white horse doesn’t leave some other kind of stinky gift in there.  One awesome Sinterklaas goodie kids can expect is a big-ass piece of chocolate in the shape of the first letter of their first name.

mmmm chocolate letter….

What happens if you’re bad, you ask?  In America you just get coal, and you should consider yourselves freaking lucky, my friends.  Sinterklaas apparently doesn’t take any shit from anyone, and if you’re bad he sends his Swarte Pieten after you, and you know that these former slaves know a thing or two about corporal punishment.  Swarte Pieten carry burlap sacks with them, and if they encounter a bad child, they put that poor, helpless soul in the bag, drag him outside, beat him with a switch, and then if the situation warrants it, they kidnap him and take him back to Spain.  What they do with this kid once he gets to Spain, I have no idea.  Maybe he’s broken down and retrained Jason Bourne-style to  become part of the next generation of cutthroat Swarte Pieten.  I heard that in the old days, family friends would take turns coming to each other’s houses dressed as Sinterklaas and Swarte Piet to perform some of these fear-inducing rituals on their kids, but nowadays parents just tell these stories to their kids to hopefully still scare them into submission.

During their stay in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas and Swarte Piet visit many public places like town squares and shopping malls and schools.  He made sure not to miss coming to University College Utrecht during one of our lunch periods.  There we were, eating some sort of mystery pastry (the Dutch seem to get a kick out of making yummy looking pastry and then filling it with something heinous, like meat and peas), when all of a sudden six to eight black men came sprinting into the dining hall, chucking handfuls of pepernoten at us.  Now, this university is an international university, run in English and with an American grading system, so many of the students (about 1/3 of the student body) were not Dutch, and we had a good American representation.  Well, us Americans thought, “What the fuck?  These crazy-ass black men run all up in here and throw disgusting, tooth-cracking cookies at us and we’re just gonna take it?  No, sir!”  And we did what came naturally.  We threw the pepernoten right back, along with some food for good measure.  Like hell we were gonna get beaten with switches….although, come to think of it, Spain probably would have been really nice that time of year.

Then in came Sinterklaas, and we straightened up a bit.  I remember he said something to us in Dutch, and then the moment I had been dreading – our Dutch language professor made us non-Dutchies learn a Sinterklaas song and we had to get up and sing it to Sinterklaas himself in front of the whole dining hall.

See how uncomfortable I am?

I did my best to mouth the words (what little of them I knew) and hide my voice in with the rest.  At that point, I would have preferred a small beating instead.  After Sinterklaas left, the food fight resumed.  Boo-yah.

the aftermath

Aside from Sinterklaas giving the kids gifts, I learned about how Dutch families exchange gifts for the holiday.  Usually families choose names so that each person only buys one gift (I like this so far).  It is customary to creatively wrap the gift in order to disguise what is inside, and also to make the wrapping somehow significant to the recipient.  For instance, my group of friends chose names and I chose my Dutch friend Floris.  He likes maps and travel, and so I wrapped his gift in a map.  I remember my friend Shady wrapped her gift and placed it on the plate of a place setting from our dining hall, using a plastic tray and all the stolen silverware and dishes.  I forget the significance…..but I think it was for Jozef who liked to eat a lot.  What also must accompany the gift is a poem about the recipient.  This poem usually makes reference to what their gift may be and/or pokes fun at the person’s character traits/defects.  Yet another small look into the darker, meaner underbelly of Dutch culture.

our Sinterklaas celebration! pepernoten, speculaas, and see’s!

So there you have it.  Sinterklaas 101.  So tonight, remember to leave your shoes out…and hope that you don’t wake up bruised on the Spanish shoreline.  Or do, you know, if you like that kind of thing.

Sinterklaas, goedheiligman!
Trek uwe beste tabberd an,
Reis daar mee naar Amsterdam,
Van Amsterdam naar Spanje,
Daar Appelen van Oranje,
Daar Appelen van granaten,
Die rollen door de straten.