December 5th is Sinterklaas!
And Hester van Eeghen US has some very special surprises for you in this week leading up to the big day - read on!
What in the world is Sinterklaas?
One of the things I learned, while working with Hester van Eeghen, is about the Dutch holiday Sinterklaas. It is one of the relatives of the Santa Claus tradition but with some very unique and interesting aspects that are distinctly Dutch.
Sinterklaas is the big present-giving day in the Netherlands, filled with parades and boisterous fun. Christmas, in contrast, is quiet and contemplative.
The Sinterklaas celebration centers around St. Nicholas, the patron saint of seamen, merchants, archers, children, prostitutes, pharmacists, lawyers and prisoners, as well as Russia and Amsterdam (you don't always hear about all St. Nicholas' constituents...). Although he is usually referred to as Sinterklaas, he is also known as De Goedheiligman (The Good Holy Man), Sint Nicolaas or simply as De Sint. At some point in his history he gave gifts to underprivileged and deserving children.
Sinterklaas arrives in Amsterdam in the middle of November on a boat, on a white horse* with his helpers (his helpers, Piets, are a bit controversial). Between his arrival and December 5, Sinterklaas and company are in parades, make public appearances and generally get all the little children wild with anticipation of all the presents they will receive if they behave. This year Sinterklaas arrived in Holland on Sunday, November 13th. The whole thing is televised and his journey is tracked on a website. The site even has coloring book activities for the little ones.
When Sinterklaas is in the country, before they go to bed, little children put their shoes by the fireplace or radiator filled with carrots and sugar cubes for Sinterklaas' horse. In the morning the carrots are gone and are replaced with sweets.
This all culminates on the evening of December 5th, when the family is gathered and there is a knock on the door. When the children open the door there is a big sack filled with presents but no Sinterklaas to be found - he is quick in his work!
What about the Adults?
Sinterklaas is just as fun for adults as it is for children - and gift giving is a big part of it. Each present comes with a poem from the secret gift-giver.
Adults and teenagers usually give each other presents by drawing names. The idea is that you don't just buy a present, you build in a "surprise" (could be anything) and hide the present inside it. Like a tiny box inside a giant box, or a present that appears to be in the middle of something seemingly unpleasant. Then you wrap the surprise, put the receiver's name on it and write a Sinterklaas poem to go along with it.
Not only do you have to write a poem, you have to read the poem attached to your present. The main thing is that the poem, which has to rhyme, usually has some references to the receiver as well as some hints about what the present is. So, the receiver has to guess what it is before unwrapping it.
The Sinterklaas poems are a big part of the tradition and a great deal of time and care is spent writing them. The trick is to be clever, funny and if you get a chance, to point out some of the foibles of the receiver. If you are stumped or just an uninspired poet, there is a handy-dandy Sinterklaas poem generator (Dutch required)!
Celebrating Sinterklaas in the US!
We here at Hester van Eeghen US have some Sinterklaas surprises in store for you this week! Please be sure to sign up for our newsletter mailing list (on main page below photos) and/or to like us on Facebook.
And believe it or not, Rhinebeck, NY, the new headquarters for HVE US, celebrates Sinterklaas too! If you come for a visit be sure to let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watch for those very special emails and Facebook posts this week!
* It's not related, but Sinterklaas on his horse on his boat reminds me of a Lyle Lovett song...