For real soapy stories, be sure and read the posts of the other players in our on-going Sunday series by visiting this week's hostess Kimberly of Temporary? Insanity and seeing who else has joined the fun!
This is one of the last in a series of posts I have been writing about the December traditions found in the Netherlands as they compare to Christmas in the US as well as UK and Germany. Look here for Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.
With my multi-cultural family I have an "unusual" perspective which has come with its own challenges! My daughters started out in a Dutch daycare and later began in a Dutch public school. But of course we visit DH's family in Germany regularly and occasionally also make the trek back to the US, even managing a couple of Christmas visits. And of course our social circle includes not only Dutch, but many UK, Italian and other ex-pats from different countries.
So how do you explain to curious and intelligent children the differences in all the traditions and still keep the magic and wonderment of Christmas and the local traditions alive? How do you as a family teach some of your native culture to children when their friends are raised with a totally different tradition? The choices are sometimes hard and even heart-breaking. As a parent you don't want your children to be left out of the fun and you don't want to spoil things for them or their friends by debunking the whole drama. And surely SinterKlaas/Santa would not leave someone out just because they are from a different country/culture? But how do you explain that Sint comes on 5.December in the Netherlands, St. Nikolaus on 6.December in Germany, and Father Christmas and Santa Claus on 25.December in the UK and US? And what about their French and Italian friends, who comes to see them? Or is there a different one in every country? So why can't we celebrate 3 times with 3 times as many presents? Or if it's the same person, then why does he talk and dress so differently? And where is Zwarte Piet in the US?
In the Netherlands and in Germany, where exposure to US and UK culture has brought the man in the bright red suit with white fur trim to these countries, they refer to the visitor on 25.December as the "Christmas man" (Kerstman in Dutch, Weinachtsmann in German). He is not generally referred to as St. Nicholas or Santa Claus as these names are so obviously similar to Sankt Nikolaus and SinterKlaas. In the Netherlands they have gone so far as to pretend that Sint and Santa are competing against one another in some television commercials. In some families the story is that they are brothers, with Santa working in different countries and at times coming to visit Sint. This also explains why they look so much alike!
But neither of these explanations would completely satisfy my tri-lingual offspring who are tuned into the differences in the cultures. So in order to keep the myth and magic alive as long as possible in all the cultures they were exposed to, I thought up the following story, adding details as more questions came up through the years. It proved to be very effective as DD1 embellished some of the explanations as she tried to show off her knowledge of the whole affair to her less-informed younger sister! Any ex-pat families facing a similar dilemma are more than welcome to adopt this story into their family traditions.
Here is the story I have told my daughters through the years:
"You see SinterKlaas started coming over to the Netherlands from Spain a long, long time ago when he heard how good the Dutch children were from the sailors who visited his land. He brought along oranges and his faithful servant Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) and his wonderful white horse Amerigo. SinterKlaas saw that the Dutch children were so much fun, that he stayed to celebrate his birthday with them on 6.December. But instead of wanting presents, because he was such a generous and kind man, Sint wanted to give presents to the children. And thus the tradition was started of bringing presents to the Dutch children, riding around on his horse with Piet, and letting Piet climb down the chimney to put the presents beside the hearth. The soot from the chimneys made Piet even darker than he was, which is why he is now so black.
However, Sint learned quickly that not all the children in the Netherlands are nice, and some of them are quite naughty and don't deserve presents. For these children, Sint leaves a reminder that if they don't behave they will not get any presents. But how does he know which children are naughty and which ones are nice? Well, he comes with Piet to the Netherlands a couple of weeks early and starts to update his list. And Piet goes around peeking into windows and listening down chimneys to see if the children are behaving or if they are being rude to their parents or fighting with their brothers and sisters.
And the children through the years started leaving notes for Sint outside the door where they left their wooden shoes at night. They would ask for something special and thank Sint for their presents from the previous year. And sometimes they would leave him drawings and pictures because they know Sint really like such things and took them back to Spain with him to decorate his home there. And as thank you for the drawings Sint started leaving oranges and sweets for the children in their shoes.
However that was long ago, and since then there are a lot more children in the Netherlands, Sint started having to come the night before on 5.December so that by 6th December all the children in the Netherlands would have presents. And because he is magical, Sint made his horse and Zwarte Piet magical too, so that they are able to get into the smallest chimneys and fly up to the tallest roofs. But of course that is a lot of work, so the children started leaving carrots and hay for Amerigo, and sometimes even cookies or a cup of chocolate for Sint and Piet. And after a while it got to be too much for just one Piet, so Sint started to get more and more Piets to help out so that now each Piet has one special job and sometimes more than one Piet are tasked to do the same thing, like go around the markets and schools and see how the children are behaving. At some schools, the children even leave breakfast for the Piets who look into the teacher's records to see what they are saying about how the kids behave at school.
Now the children in some of the other countries also heard about Sint, and asked him to come to their country. So Sint and Piet also started visiting in Belgium. But the Piets did not know how to speak German and got lost on their first visit to Germany and had to ask a poor old farmer for help. This man, Ruprecht, was dressed in rags and a dark cloak and was a bit scary looking, but he was a good and honest man, and he helped Sint out in Germany. So ever since, Sint leaves the Piets to go back to Spain when he is through in the Netherlands, and on 6th December he comes to Germany and goes around with Knecht Ruprecht as his helper there. Knecht Ruprecht looks out in December for Sint to see which children have been naughty and nice in Germany. So the children in Germany should be aware when they see someone on the street in December who looks kind of raggedy and scary, as it might be Knecht Ruprecht who is taking notes! In Germany, they are a little more formal and maybe they don't know him so well, so they call him Sankt Nickolaus instead of his nickname Klaas.
After he finishes in Germany, Sint goes to some other countries in Europe bringing toys there. In each country he has a different helper because he needs someone who knows his way around and who speaks the language to help him out. And other countries also have different names for him and of course Sint speaks the language of each country he visits because he is a very clever man.
After Amerigo has jumped up to all the steep roofs in the Netherlands, he is pretty tired, so Sint lets him return to Spain with the Piets. But Sint uses a sleigh in Germany, which is especially useful in the places where there is lots of snow this time of year. In some other countries he gets around other ways, using a Vespa motorbike in the narrow streets of Rome and other cities in Italy and a donkey in the steep, winding village roads out in the countryside. And sometimes Sint has to change clothes because of the weather and because he wants to be recognized by the people there.
Of course the children in the UK and US also heard about Sint and wanted to celebrate as well. But by then Sint was so busy that even with all his magic he could not be everywhere at once for his birthday. So instead he decided to treat the children when they celebrate the birthday of Jesus on 25.December. So after he finishes his rounds in Europe, you start seeing him in the US and UK where he is making his lists of the naughty and nice children there. Because these are very big countries, Sint enlisted the help of some magical elves who have a workshop at the North Pole. There they make the toys that Sint then brings to the children. Only in the US they call him Santa which is "Sint" in English. And in the UK, they call him "Father Christmas", not because he was Jesus' father, but because he helped to make the Christmas holiday so special as it is today.
Because there are so many children in the US and UK, Santa or Father Christmas needs a magical sleigh to help him get around. And this is pulled by the flying reindeer that we have heard about. And even though there is a time difference between various parts of the US, Santa has to work very hard in order to get all the toys delivered by the morning of 25.December. So he wears more of a working uniform instead of the fancy clothes he usually wears in the Netherlands and Germany. And in some places like Florida and Arizona where it is so warm, he might even wear shorts and sandals!
So even though sometimes in the Netherlands they don't recognize Santa is Sint because he is dressed so different and they might hear him speaking English, we know he is the same person. And he of course knows you and that is why wherever you are, he will bring you presents. So if we are in Germany on 6th December, then Sankt Nikolaus will visit. And if we go to America for Christmas, then Santa will leave you a present there. Now it might night be very big, because he has already left you something on 5.December at your home in the Netherlands. But even if you have already gotten a present, you will still get something so that you know that Sint looks out for you wherever you are."