Living in a foreign country is quite the interesting experience, and education about the host country frequently comes in unexpected ways.
I moved to The Netherlands in December of 2005, but I still feel clueless about many things in the culture around me.
I was quite proud of myself this year, informing our housemate (his first year as an expat) about the whole Sinterklaas and Zwaart Piet stuff, as I covered in the previous post. But I was only partially getting a grip on Dutch Christmas customs, as a recent customer informed me.
A few days before December 5 a customer made a purchase that she wanted gift wrapped. I reached for our holiday paper, shown above left. "Do you have Christmas paper?" she asked. "Yes, I said, holding it closer to her, "we have this, would you like red or blue?" She looked unsatisfied. "Maar, dat is niet Kerst papier; dat is Sinterklaas papier." ("But, that is not Christmas paper, that is Sinterklaas paper.")
The light dawned. Oooooooooooh. So, it's not all one big season from the arrival of Sinterklaas at the end of November to December 25. No no no. I had that all wrong. Instead...Sinterklaas arrives and all the zwaart piets dance around and give the kids goodies and all that. The kids put their shoes out on December 5 (and a carrot for the horse!) and they wake up to shoes filled with kruidnoten and chocolate coins and candy; along with presents from friends and family.
After December 6, the whole Sinterklaas bit is over. Anything smacking of Sinterklaas and zwaart Piet is taken down or discounted and the second phase of the holiday, Christmas, begins. My housemate ran out and grabbed a bunch of zwaart piet dolls, which my cat Quila found fun to pose with. These dolls have blue eyes, which is exactly what you see when scores of Dutch people dress as "Black Peter."
Until December 6 Christmas trees are not even available. But exactly on December 6th, BOOM they appeared on every street corner. Now the focus is on the traditional story of the birth of Christ, and only now are the lights appearing in the windows and so on. However, although it's not part of traditional Dutch culture, Santa Claus' image is now making an appearance here, but this is a distinct character, he is NOT Sinterklaas. We were completely wrong to have a small Christmas tree with ornament display before December 6 (forehead smack). Okay, it's been five years, time to catch on. Makes me wonder what other glaring cultural norms I am blind to.
Typical "Sinterklaas" (not Christmas!) candy, which we are now shoving down the throats of unsuspecting La Naranja customers, because if they don't eat this stuff we know we will, and we are desperately trying to watch our girlish figures over the holidays. In fact, we will discount anything in the shop ten percent if you eat some our candy. Please. Keep Bilderdijkstraat beautiful, and remove these sweets from our reach.
And, now, officially, Merry Christmas, everybody! Let the festivities begin!