Sinterklaas: Is there any point celebrating a foreign festival?


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.

photo (8)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 1 (9).JPG


World Cup Craft

I hate football.

I hate watching sport.

But there is something about being an ex-pat that suddenly makes you excited about things that at home you would have spurned as you would spurn a rabid dog.

Driving my car around my English town, I put on home-made mix CDs and sing along with unabashed abandon to cheesy Dutch songs from the 80s that my friends over in the Netherlands wouldn’t be caught dead listening to. I don’t even dare name them because my friends read my blog and I’d be able to hear their mocking laughter all the way across the North Sea. Some of these songs have become my son’s firm favourites, it’s that bad.

Similarly, I was not bothered about watching Holland play in the World Cup when I still lived at home. But now that I am abroad, this is a little bit of nationalism that I find myself indulging in. I watched the Netherlands play Spain with only half an eye, not expecting much, but in the aftermath I couldn’t help feeling a little thrill of national pride whenever people commented on the score to me (5-1, btw. For The Netherlands. Just saying).

So when it came to their second match and I discovered it was on at 5pm, I decided to make a thing of it. I told the kids that we were watching “Nederland” play football in the afternoon as a special treat. The Boy was excited, but I realised that he had very little concept as yet of supporting a national team (flags, colours, football songs) or even of football. He wouldn’t know what he was watching out for or when to cheer.

Time for some craft, I decided!



I got out some white paper and some chopsticks to make flags with, some scissors, pritt stick and coloured paper. The kids did all the glueing and I cut the red and blue paper into strips to stick onto their flags in (roughly) the right places.

little crafter


Ready for waving!

Ready for waving!

Then it was time to explain the rules of football. Just in case you are a novice yourself, this is what you need to know: there are two teams. Our team is wearing blue and orange. When they kick the ball into the other team’s goal, you cheer and wave your home-made flag. (You’re welcome)


The kids managed longer than I had expected. The Boy was keen to see the number at the top of the screen change from 0-0 and kept asking me why I “oohed” or “ahhhed” or groaned or tutted. I tried to stay patient and give him the details he craved (“that player was very naughty and pushed the player in the yellow shirt”). I knew the Boy had been needing the toilet for at least half an hour and I had tried suggesting he might see if there was any surprise wee before the match started but he insisted he didn’t need to. Twenty minutes into the game he squeaked: “I need the potty!” He dashed into the kitchen and just as the door swung shut behind him there was a deafening roar from the orange-clad fans in the stadium: Holland had scored the first goal. He stopped himself at the brink and came in, trousers around his ankles, to see what had happened. The numbers had changed! He went back out to finish the job but no sooner had he disappeared from the room or another shout went up, this time from the green and yellow fans. Australia had scored! My poor boy wailed: “I can’t wee if they keep shouting ‘yay!'”

The Girl was not into it. It wasn’t long before she got bored with watching tiny people run up and down a green screen and started wailing that she wanted Dora, Boots and Diego. I asked the Boy what he wanted. He admitted that he wouldn’t mind a bit of Dora, Boots and Diego either. So we switched to Nick Jr and learned to say “por favor” instead. I couldn’t blame them really. Despite my new found patriotism, I still struggle to suppress a yawn when faced with 90 minutes of football and at half time I was starting to long for a rip-roaring adventure with Dora myself. Perhaps for their third match this afternoon I should just stick to waving a paper flag while watching the highlights…