Saturday, December 05, 2015

Gifts of the Season

There’s something to be said for Dutch hospitality.

We’ve relied on it quite a bit this Fall, if we’re being honest. From the many times we asked for directions (in English), to our first few days when we had no idea about grocery store etiquette (and the cashier gladly weighed our bananas and printed the required sticker despite having a line full of customers), to the more meaningful invitations to spend time with Dutch people (more to follow), we’ve truly been astounded.

Newfoundlanders are supposedly well known for their hospitality and friendliness. And several Dutch folks have told us that the Dutch are known for being direct. Our experience has been that the Dutch are more like Newfoundlanders than we could possibly have imagined. Sure, they’re a direct folk and will tell you like it isbut honestly, that’s a trait we Newfies have in abundance. 

Anyway, we’ve written about the great experiences we’ve had this term joining the ISMA’s monthly meeting in Amsterdam. On our first night, we met Pieter and Eveliene de Boer, a wonderfully friendly and kind Dutch couple who have volunteered with ISMA for several years. We were struck by their openness and generosity; they were happy to teach us about Dutch traditions and customs but equally interested in our own lives and interests. Ryan was very touched, for example, when Eveliene—who we had seen a month before—remembered he had run in the Amsterdam Marathon and thought to ask how it went the next time we saw her. That evening also celebrating ISMA’s American Thanksgiving with the eclectic group of International students were Pascal and Pim, Eveliene and Pieter’s children. Pim impressed the group with a beautiful cello performance, whilst Pascal certainly impressed me with his skills playing “Head Soccer,” a tablet game he delighted in sharing with me.

Being that Ryan and I are interested in traditions and customs, we were really intrigued by the Dutch Sinterklaas holiday on December 5th. Sinterklaas, as we’ve come to learn, is the Dutch Santa, though I suppose Santa is actually the American Sinterklaas, as the figures are based on the historical St. Nicholas. Clad in a red hat and long white beard (though looking much more like a religious figure than jolly ol’ Santa), Ryan and I participated in the welcome celebration this year at Dam Square, the he arrived in the Netherlands from Spain. 

Imagine our delight when Eveliene and Pieter invited us to celebrate the tradition with their family! We gladly accepted their generous offer, as the opportunity to share in such a nuanced and familial tradition was something both of us recognized to be very valuable and special.

Amidst final papers and our first attempts at packing, it was a welcome break for us to choose presents for each of the family members.

Pieter and Pascal picked us up from our apartment at Uilenstede and we arrived at the de Boer household excited and in anticipation of this special family tradition. We first ate dinner together—Ryan’s favourite, lasagna—and then took tea to the family’s living room. Within minutes, the doorbell rang and, what do you know, when we opened the door, two large sacks filled with presents were there! Together the boys dragged them into the living room and Pascal, who had quickly become Sinterklaas, began passing them out as we munched on kruidnoten, bite-sized Dutch cookies spiced with cinnamon or chocolate and making a popular festive treat.

Christmas traditions at home are equally as ritualized as they are here. Stepping into another family’s traditions is an intimate invitation and look at their way of life and a special introduction to their values. In the Carroll household, Christmas morning was filled with chaos and excitement. Especially when Jenny, Nikki, and I were younger, we’d wake up as early as we could and have Mom and Dad out of bed shortly after 6:00 am. As an adult, I marvel at their willingness to get up so early (especially considering Mom likely didn’t get to bed until well past midnight and was already up before us to put the turkey on!). Anyway, I can only imagine what an outsider would have felt to be in that old living room watching three excited little girls ripping open and marveling at each present. Luckily (depending on your interpretation!), the Carroll family has videotaped their Christmas morning since probably 1995 and it’s now become a tradition to re-watch these videos together and laugh at the silly things we did and said. Nikki, the youngest sister, was easily the most generous—one of my favourite moments is when she expresses nothing but pure delight upon unwrapping a chocolate bar, and proudly presenting it to Dad, the cameraman, she says “A bar! A bar! I’ll share he with you!”

Anyway, these images were in my mind as we took part in the de Boer’s special family tradition. It was so lovely to see how delighted and appreciative Pim and Pascal were of each individual present. The whole party watches each family member open their present and the receiver, upon inspecting the gift, exclaims: “Thank you, Saint Nicholas!” Ryan and I were so thrilled and honestly surprised by our presents; we had expected one parcel each but could not believe how spoiled we were! 

A couple of those gifts happened to be very typical Dutch presents, like large chocolate letters in the shape the first letter of your name.

We were also included in the more poetic tradition associated with the Sinterklaas festivities: each family member receives a poem from Sinterklaas that humorously recounts that person’s various exploits throughout the year and hints at the present they will receive. 

It was such great fun and my face was nearly hurting by the end from all the smiles and laughs. Pascal in particular is quite the entertainer and kept us all laughing.

At the end of the evening, both of us agreed that this was a definite highlight of our time in the Netherlands. We could not have dreamed in August just how much it would mean to us to be able to participate in such a lovely and special tradition, and it made us reflective on our own family Christmas traditions which are quickly approaching.  


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