I am an immigrant, but my children are not.
“Tomorrow is Christmas!” my daughter cheered in the car.
“No, it’s not Christmas, it’s Sinterklaas,” I explained for the millionth time.
“But Santa is coming,” she said, hopeful, confused, worried.
“Not Santa, Sinterklaas!” I said, struggling to keep a note of exasperation out of my voice. It was meant to be fun, after all. And I wondered whether I should just not have bothered trying to celebrate a Dutch festival in England.
Hands down my favourite day of the year growing up was 5 December, the eve of Sinterklaas’s birthday, the patron saint of children.
That evening it would be dark outside, but inside there would be a happy glow. There were vast quantities of special sweets on the coffee table, sweets that were only available this time of year: marzipan figures, fondant, little spiced biscuits and other stuff I still don’t really have the English vocabulary to accurately describe (banketletter, anyone?).
My mum would play Sinterklaas songs on the piano (distracting us so we wouldn’t notice that one of the adults had mysteriously disappeared for a moment) and we would all sing along until suddenly, there was a loud knock on the door. My brother and I would race to the front door and outside we would find a big basket of presents.
After dragging it inside, we all took turns finding a present, reading out the poem that came with it while everyone listened and then open the present to find out what was inside. Other more artistically and practically gifted families would make elaborate craft projects and hide the present in there.
As we are all language freaks, the poems were a big deal for my family and we loved coming up with ingenious rhymes. When my brother and I were old enough to give presents ourselves, our aim every year was to emulate my parents’ poetic style so that no one could guess who the present was from by the quality of the verse.
Coming to the UK, I was a little distressed to find that unwrapping presents at Christmas didn’t seem to have that same reverence for each gift. Rather than taking turns, it seemed to be more of a rip-away free for all to get to the contents, and I realised it was because there was no poetry and no craft involved. Although lovingly chosen and wrapped, nobody had been forced to spend hours sweating blood at a computer trying to find something to rhyme with ‘scarf’.
Before we actually had kids I had always blithely assumed that Sinterklaas was naturally something we would celebrate with them: the ideal children’s festival.
But it has turned out to be harder than I thought it would be.
Santa is everywhere in December. His mythology is rehearsed alongside the Christmas story at school, among friends, in the shops, on TV. Expectations are built up, grotto’s in schools and shopping centres encourage them to express their Christmas wishes to the man in the red suit with the white beard. The Boy’s reception class has an elf, sells Santa stamps, has a postbox for letters.
Who the hell is Sinterklaas? Nobody mentions him.
I hadn’t realised how necessary the context and the build up is for the enjoyment of the day. In the Netherlands, children do Sinterklaas crafts in class, practise the songs, watch the Saint’s arrival in the country on TV mid-November, put their shoe by the chimney with a wish list for Sinterklaas and a carrot for the horse and find sweets in it in the morning, get a visit from Sinterklaas in class, watch the Sinterklaas News on TV. And on the 4th of December, all their friends go home with eager anticipation, looking forward to what is to come the next day, building up each other’s excitement.
We, on the other hand, just had a conversation in the car on Friday.
Me: “Tomorrow you can put your shoe by the chimney, because Sinterklaas is coming!”
Boy (5): “Yay! Will I get my cuddly minion? Oh… no… I asked Santa for that.”
Girl (3): “Yay! It’s Christmas tomorrow! Santa is coming!”
I realised I should have dialled down my expectations and dialled up the preparation for the big day.
I realised I would have to accept that our Sinterklaas would never be more than the briefest of nods towards what I had as a child, and that Christmas would be the big present-event for them. The 5th of December: just day 5 of the advent calendar with bonus, confusing traditions.
I can’t recreate this very precious little bit of my Dutch childhood for them.
Maybe in time, though, it will become something they treasure. They will buy a little present for each other and there will be whispers and sneaking and secrecy on the 4th, as they hide in their rooms with their laptops writing one poem only but huffing and sighing and delighting in equal measure. Then there will be a special evening, with sweets that they don’t get any other time of the year, and songs that none of their friends know but they do. Perhaps one of them will learn to play the piano and accompany us.
And perhaps it will be a special part of our lives anyway. Different, but special.