Sinterklaas

Tomorrow is the eve of Sinterklaas, the day Dutch children sing to fireplaces and hope something lands in their shoe overnight in exchange for a carrot or other treat for the horse who carries Sint from roof to roof.

My cousin was kind enough to include some pepernoten in a care package recently, so for once I can enjoy the Sinterklaas-sfeer with the right sweets.

Sinterklaas came under fire this year for its portrayal of helpers, Zwarte Pieten, whose costumes to some harken back to slavery, even though the lore states that the original ‘piet’ who followed the saint originally was actually freed and served Nikolaas in gratitude for his compassion.

When I grew up skin color wasn’t highlighted as much as it is here in the states. Yes, I was aware of socio-economic strife toward certain cultural groups, but I felt that it was in the context of ideology and lifestyle, not about skin.

It is always interesting to look at traditions and their origins and then review them from a new lens. If Disney were to adhere to fairy tales according to the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen no one would want to emulate the Little Mermaid. The Struwwelpeter tales I grew up with would be R-rated for graphic violence (but hey, I never sucked my thumb!). Many tales served as warnings for protection in a dark and violent world.

Anyway, I have fond childhood memories of Sinterklaas in spite of the threat of being put in a sack and carried to Spain if I didn’t behave.

What has fallen out of my life is the fopkadootjes, presents that are wrapped to represent something different from what they are. Sinterklaasavond is often a time of poking fun at each other, either with true gag gifts or with a ribbing via made up poems. In spite of the jabs family members spend weeks preparing the presents and the poems, so it is a labor of love even if delivered in a backhanded way at times.

A lot of traditions can be (and have been) overanalyzed. Many celebrations have been retrofitted into cultural ideologies that are a far cry from their origin. Ultimately, the story of Sinterklaas is one of living with compassion and having a generous spirit. That to me is what every holiday should be about, whether in remembrance of saints and significant people, historic events, or seasonal occurrences. We mark this time to commemorate something significant, however idealistic or simplistic and even stereotypical the portrayal of those people or occasions seems to the modern eye.

Generosity and gratitude should be practiced and reflected upon year-round. To me, celebrating a season of gift-giving puts us in touch with that childlike innocence where we don’t question whether horses can balance on roofs, why our presents don’t emerge from the chimney soot-smeared, and why in a sea-faring nation one particular ship brings out droves of people in multiple cities at the same time.

So I will commemorate the setting out of a shoe by the fireplace, enjoy my ginger snack, and ponder where my compassion and generosity can be amplified over the next year.

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