Monday, December 6, 2010

The Feast of Saint Nicholas

This is a post I wrote three years ago. But I like it enough to replay it. Hopefully you'll like it enough to reread it.

Richard comes from a Dutch family, and a couple of years ago I decided, in the spirit of equality and all, that we would incorporate something peculiarly Dutch (because, let's face it, the Dutch are a decidedly odd bunch) into our family traditions. Most of what Richard remembers, from living in Holland, are things like speculaas (a spiced cookie), chocolate sprinkles on his toast (didn't believe this until I saw the box), krupok (a dried chip made from prawn dust and potato starch that magically puffs up 5X its size when you chuck it into hot oil), sambal oolek (a hot chili paste), ketchap manis (sweet & thick soy sauce), and nasi goreng (a rice dish). Notice a certain theme here? All this, coming from my skinny husband. All food memories. Proust and his madeleines would be proud.

Another one from the memory bank was the celebration of Sinterklaas, or St Nicholas. St Nicholas, so the story goes, was a young man born into a rich family in what is now Turkey (c.300AD), who was later orphaned when his parents died in an epidemic. He grew into a very pious young man, and according to the stories was responsible for many quiet acts of generosity. One concerns a very poor family, with three girls, who were too poor to give dowries to their daughters (so they could marry). Nicholas heard of this, and on three separate occasions tossed bags of gold into the chimney so the girls could later marry their sweethearts. There are other stories about him, ranging from restoring children to life to calming the waters so that fishermen would not drown in a storm. Nowadays he's the patron saint of children and sailors.

According to Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas, his white horse Piet and his trusty sidekick Knutselpiet (or Swarthy Piet, a dark-skinned character who carries a large stick with which to smack bad children) arrive on December 6th, laden with candy and small treats for children, which they then hand out: slipped in through doors or tucked into shoes that have been left by the door (if you're a good little Dutch child you will have filled your shoe with hay and carrots for white Piet). At night the feast is all about fun and games: people wrap small gifts with accompanying poems that gently mock and tease, and at each place setting is a chocolate initial - the first letter of the person's name. Now you know why you always see those Droste letters in stores right about now!

So last night we had our own little celebration for Sinterklaas. We cut out little stand-up figures of him (in his Bishop's garb), made little boxes out of cardboard and tucked little treasures the kids had dug up into them, and made speculaas.

The twins rushed around being extremely excited, Dominic concentrating meticulously on his colouring work, FDPG, being the equine fanatic she is, was extremely concerned that white Piet would not have enough carrots, while Max, who is at the time of his life when kids begin to doubt the existence of things like Santa Claus and Sinterklaas - and even the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny (gasp!), watched all our efforts with a rather mournful skepticism. He doesn't want to, in the words of C.S. Lewis, "grow up out of the nursery" but it's hard straddling both worlds. He was extremely grumpy when he was finally dispatched to bed and both Richard and I rolled our collective eyes at his no-doubt coming adolescence. This morning, however, I noticed that he was the first one up, rather breathless about having discovered his chocolate initial and little golds coins where the straw and carrots had been. Habits die hard when you're ten years old, it would seem.


Here we are three years later. The twins are still rushing around being extremely excited, writing letters and exhorting the Webkinz Collective to keep watch for A Sighting, while Max has definitely passed that boundary between Believing & Wondering and is now firmly in the rather more melancholic Wishing He Still Believed But Feeling Vastly More Mature section of life, not that that means anything when it comes to leaving his shoes filled with carrots.

Oh no.

Not that that means anything in terms of not getting his chocolate Sinterklaas and Swarte Piet, either.

Oh no, no, no!

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