Which tradition do you maintain around Christmas?

This time of the year many multicultural families struggle with finding a compromise: which tradition to maintain around Christmas, especially when you partner is used to other customs and you are living in a place where “things are done differently” from what you were used to when you were a child.

I must confess that it would never have crossed my mind to actually start doing anything related to Christmas already mid November before moving to the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, the most important celebration during this part of the year is Sinterklaas, not Christmas. And it starts with his arrival mid November, and goes on with his visits all over the country during the following weeks, until Pakjesavond on December the 5th.

In our family we decided to adopt this tradition as our aim is to integrate and embrace the culture of our host country. But we also wanted to maintain some of the traditions we liked from our childhood. So we ended up practically celebrating this season from mid November until the 6th of January. – It’s a long time…

So, every year we are excited upon Sinterklaas’ arrival, and our children put their shoes near the chimney, hoping that some of the (Zwarte) Pieten will fill them over night with pepernoten or other delicacies, sometimes small cadautjes. – Even though they know about this tradition, our children love to keep up the magic and celebrate it with the same enthusiasm.

English: boterletter sinterklaas dutch traditi...

As we also want to keep some of the traditions my husband and I know and cherish from our childhood, we like to put up the Adventskalender. Each child usually gets one and opens a door every day starting from December 1rst.

40px|border|Flag Deutsch: Adventszeit in Luzer...

40px|border|Flag Deutsch: Adventszeit in Luzern: Adventskalender bei der Reussbrücke (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These two traditions are quite similar, both, the shoes and the advent calendar will give our children a surprise in the morning. – Will the shoe be filled? What am I going to receive or read (if it’s not a calendar filled with toys, sweets etc.) in my calendar? – If you combine them both, your children will get two “surprises” per day until Pakjesavond, and then carry on with the Advents calendar until Christmas.

We will also celebrate Christmas on the 24th (and 25th-26th December), and, of course, La Befana or Heilige Dreikönige on the 6th of January.

The historical center of Schöckingen in Baden-...

The historical center of Schöckingen in Baden-Württemberg in Germany, with christmas illuminations. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Usually our children receive the bigger presents at Sinterklaas and this for very obvious reasons: we usually meet with our families at Christmas, which involves a lot of travelling, so we soon decided not to overload our car for those days and decided to offer our children the bigger presents at Sinterklaas. This give them the opportunity to already play with them before Christmas. At Christmas then, they receive books, clothes or items they “need” – which makes much more sense to me and my husband, and is more the way I celebrated Christmas as a child.

As for the celebration of Sinterklaas, whose German/Swiss/Austrian equivalent Sankt Nikolaus is celebrated on the 6th, we decided to shift the celebration to the 5th December, because this is the Pakjesavond celebrated here in the Netherlands.

Then we celebrate Christmas on the 24th and 25th with family, with a great combination of different traditional meals, depending on where and with whom we’re celebrating.

In January another celebration will close this festive season on the 6th of January. In Italy we would celebrate La Befana. When I was a child, this was the day when my fellow Italian friends would receive presents; Christmas was the day family would gather together and share festuous meals. The 6th of January was the day children would simmer with excitement – and a bit of fear as la Befana would bring choal to those children who were not so kind… This makes this celebration very similar to Sankt Nikolaus/Sinterklaas in Germany, whose partner, the Knecht Ruprecht or Schmutzli in Switzerland, would give them a rod (and sometimes “hit” them… ) if they weren’t behaving well the weeks before…

On the 6th of January we now celebrate the Heilige Drei Könige, the Three Wise Men. We share a cake, the typical Dreikönigskuchen or Gallette des Rois – like our Belgian and French neighbours, but I still have my little Befana that hovers over the table that day…


What are the traditions you’re maintaining or adopting in your family?

3 replies »

  1. Dear Ute,
    I understand your enthusiasm, but how old are your kids? I may spoil your feelings but even to celebrate ‘Santa’ on Dec/ 6th has been off my menu since, well, I was less than 10 years old, except that as a teacher, the thing came back for a few years in the 90’s for the sake of little kids of colleagues. With my two adopted ‘grandchildren’ around, I praise the almighty they have stopped watching TV, because this prevents us watching those silly, all-round Dutch broadcasts about Sinter and his hundreds of Zwarte Pieten around the clock. School does its bit in the thing but as they are very multicultural, they don’t overdo it for the sake of all those Arabic and other children.

    My family … Well, in my native land, Hungary, we never really had much of Santa in the whole country. Now that I’ve had to re-discover the habit, I feel grateful for this omission. For us, Christmas is the real thing. Jan. 6th is not celebrated, it is simply the day those poor victims of Christian culture are thrown into the street (with about 300 million families in Eur. and 150 m. in America alone, I guess we’ve killed at least 27.000 million fir trees during a lifetime of 60 years – for what? tradition? which is less than 150 years old? – no: for commerce: these holidays are already celebrated throughout China too, often whether people are Christian or not, but in different ways: by going out together to get drunk in bars; in Europe and America, for buying stuff more than usual).

    This long Sinterklass period only makes me jittery, especially when one of those countless Zwarte’s approaches me in the street about something. I’d like to, but can’t, choose between two words: silly, or stupid. I simply don’t understand what this has to do with our times or traditions, whereas I know quite well about the Italian origins, just like for Valentine’s day. That, at least, has some meaning for some people. Sinter doesn’t have any meaning for adults, only forced on (and submissively, for their kids, accepted by) the Dutch.

    I don’t think one has to accept all aspects of a culture one lives in. Excuses.

  2. I must confess that before I had kids, this season was very quiet and not very special for me in terms of celebrations etc. I like to keep things simple, and still do even if this post doesn’t seem like that. I find that this mix of traditions reflects the way we embrace the cultures and make parts of them our own. You mention the Christmas trees: we have a fake one for exactly the reason you mention. It even travelled with us when for years we would spend Christmas in different places (it even has a name…). I must disagree with you about Sinterklaas or St Nicholas not having any meaning for us. He does: you can find it in other posts I published here. I think we all choose among the traditions we know, those who have a special meaning for us, evoque maybe a memory we cherish. And we’re all free to combine them. At least this is my very personal opinion. I rediscovered some through my children who for some may seem to old to celebrate Sinterklaas, but who happen to like the magic of this season.

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