Tag Archives: Netherlands

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?

If you want to make sure that you have a say and that your needs are met this year, take 20 minutes to watch my video on this topic (click on the picture):


@Ute’s International Lounge 2016


Some similarities between German and Dutch

Learing a new language is always very exciting. Especially when the new language we’re learning is similar to one we already know. These similarities can be at different levels (phonetical, lexical, syntactical etc.).

The Dutch language belongs to the westgerman branch of the indoeuropean languages and is actually close to German (and Swissgerman).

The simplified relation between the languages ...

The simplified relation between the languages Dutch, English and German. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For many foreigners the pronunciations of “Scheveningen” or “Gouda” are a challenge. It’s especially the way the <ch> and the intervocalic <g> is pronounced that creates some articulatory problems. For Swissgermans the voiceless velar fricative <g> [x] or [ɣ] for the <ch> or the uvular fricative [χ] are very well known. They sound similar to the German in “ach”, “Bach”, “Fach” etc.. Therefore this is not something Germans or Swissgermans would find difficult to pronounce. In the southern Dutch dialects these sounds are softer and <g> and <ch> represent the palatal fricatives ([ʝ] and [ç]).

Something I personally found important to learn are the false cognates or false friends. People already fluent in German when learning Dutch, need to be aware of words that are phonetically similar and sometimes even have similar roots but are different in meanings:

The Dutch aandacht means “Aufmerksamkeit” (attention) in German, and the German “Andacht” means “devotion”.

The zetel is a seat and not a saddle (German “Sattel”), the winkel is a shop (“Laden”) and not an angle, like in German.

With vaart you don’t design the journey or trip (“Fahrt”), but only boat trip and varen refers to the movement of ships only.

Tot is not “tot” (dead) but only means “until” and is pronounced with a short /o/ (whereas the german “tot” has a long one /o:/.

A postbus is not a public means of transportation but a P.O. box (“Postfach”).

The kwartier is not a quarter or accomodation (germ.”Quartier”) but defines a quarter of an hour; and it’s often used in its diminutive form kwartiertje.

Glazuur has nothing to do with baking (germ.”Glasur”; icing) but is dental enamel (“Zahnschmelz”).

Blaffen does not mean to snap at someone, like the German “anblaffen” but the barking of the dog. In German this way to snap is comparable to the barking of a dog though and both words have the same etymon. When a Dutch says that he’s going to call you on the phone, i.e. bellen (ik ga je bellen), which is the abbreviated form for opbellen, or ring at your door, a German would think that this person would bark at him (germ. bellen). For an English speaking person it doesn’t seem too weird, as the English bell (noun) is producing a similar sound although the English verb to bell has a different meaning i.e. the semantic fields for the Dutch bell and the English one are slightly different.

The sale signs for houses and flats puzzle every German speaking person who visits the Netherlands for the first time: te huur (which means “to rent”) seems very similar “to whore” (“huren” in German), but once you learn that <uu> is pronounced like [] you’ll get over it. A similar misunderstanding could occur with the verkocht sign, when a property is sold, since it really sounds like the word for “overcooked” in German (“verkocht”).

Te huur in Huizen

Te huur in Huizen (Photo credit: CorporatieNL)

Verkocht onder voorbehoud

Verkocht onder voorbehoud (Photo credit: the_riel_thing)

What were the analogies or similarities you found between German and Dutch? Or another language you know and Dutch?

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“Take off your shoes, please”…?

No shoesIn many countries like Germany, Switzerland, Skandinavian countries etc. it is common use to take off the shoes when entering someone’s home (*). The custom of removing shoes is widespread also in Eastern countries like Japan, Korea and Turkey.

In these countries it is considered a major faux pas to walk through a house with shoes on. In some schools in Sweden, children are even required to remove their shoes.

In Japan, removing shoes has also a very practical matter. Traditionally, the floors in Japanese dwellings were covered with tatami mats which are used to sit on and to sleep on instead of chairs and beds. Wearing shoes into the house would bring the mud, dirt, dust and bacteria into the house and you would sit and sleep in all that. Even if the pavement technology has pretty much improved and hard flooring is quite common in Japanese houses nowadays, the tradition of taking off shoes remains.

Please take off your shoes before entering the...

Please take off your shoes before entering the temple (Photo credit: Stephen Chipp)

Removing shoes before entering a home is more a cultural rather than a religious tradition, it is important to know that some religions require removing shoes before entering a house of worship or a temple: muslims remove their shoes before entering a mosque, Hindus remove their shoes before entering a temple and Sikhs do the same before entering a gurdwara. People used to do so for religious reasons will also be more sensible about it in their own house.

Generally, we could say that from a cultural point of view, it is considered a mark of respect if guests remove their shoes while entering someone’s home.

Many people feel uncomfortable when asked to remove their shoes when entering someone’s home. They feel as if it is an imposition, a demand for a level of intimacy that they may not be willing to have with the person they’re visiting. Some also don’t want to show their feet or their socks or stockings, or would even feel mortified to be asked to take off their shoes in public, simply because in their culture it is not common.

The main reason for removing shoes is health

“In the 15th century one was not allowed to enter a room without taking off shoes in Holland. One can only imagine the human and animal sewage that one would walk through out in the world at that time, so removing shoes would be a precaution against illness-causing bacteria”. (Annie B. Bond)

Since municipal sewage systems took hold and cars and trains did supersede animal transportation, we could say that the original health reasons behind removing shoes fell away.

But new studies show that while we may no longer be tracking in as much bacteria on our shoes, we are tracking in dangerous pollutants. Therefore it may be time to return to the practices of the 15th century to protect the health of our homes. In her article about this topic, the Health Home Expert Annie B. Bond, lists up many examples that should convince people to take off their shoes at home.

Pesticides, toxic coal tar, lead etc. are tracked into homes on shoes. Taking off shoes at the door is even more important if you have carpets, which are “sink hole(s) for toxins of all kinds” that are brought into the home on shoes and boots “including pollens, lead, pesticides and more”. Furthermore, infants and young children spend most of the time on the floor (not in all cultures!) and are much closer to the floor, put toys that have been on the floor into their mouth etc. “With their growing central nervous systems and developing immune systems, toxic chemicals can be especially damaging”. The same applies to pets who are also vulnerable to exposure because commonly lying on the floor or carpet.

(*) I would like to point out that, contrary to what I said in the first version of this post (published on Sunday the 24th November), it is not common anymore to take off the shoes in every home in the Netherlands. I quickly asked my Dutch friends who confirmed that they did not always do it and, what I found particularly interesting: they do it when they have small children (babies or toddlers) who play on the floor. – I would like to thank Rakael, who pointed this out in the reply section and made me realize that my data was not accurate enough and partly based on obsolete observations made by others.

When to ask and when not to ask to take off the shoes…

I grew up with the habit to take off my shoes every time I came home but I lived in a country where people didn’t have this habit and was used not to do so when entering their home. I ended up combining both habits for my own family. I do expect my family and close friends to take off their shoes as a sign of respect and intimacy. I also ask children to take off their shoes when they come in for obvious health reasons, especially when I know that they will play on the floor and go up and down the stairs (one of our house-rules is: no shoes upstairs or on the stairs).

Considering all the general factors mentioned above – religion, culture, health – one thing has to be pointed out. Taking off the shoes is a sign of intimacy with the guests and we have to be flexible enough to make exceptions.

I would not ask a superior to take off his or her shoes when visiting, or if I have an official gathering at my house. Personally, I would also feel very uncomfortable to ask someone I don’t really know to remove his or her shoes at the doorstep. Also, I usually don’t ask friends to take off their shoes if they’ll only stay downstairs and probably go in our garden or if I know that there will be other guests who feel less comfortable with taking off their shoes.

In general, in our house shoes are allowed downstairs when we have guests who don’t have to (for reasons mentioned above) or can’t take off their shoes. Some of our friends have diabetes or other medical conditions which require that they keep their shoes on.

It helps that we don’t have carpets downstairs and I usually clean the floors after people walked in with shoes; especially when workers came into the house.

If it is considered a faux pas to not take off the shoes in some cultures, it is also considered a faux pas to take them off in cultures where people is not used to this habit. It can be very embarassing entering a room in socks where everyone else wears shoes…

In my opinion it is a matter of cultural intelligence to ponder if it’s better to wear shoes or take them off when visiting.

Some tips for the guest and the host

If you visit someone’s home and are not sure if you’ll be asked to take off your shoes, you can ask your host right after the welcome or look what other guests did while entering the home (usually hosts would direct you to the place where to take off your shoes if this is desired).

If you know that you will visit someone from a culture where you will probably be asked to leave your shoes at the doorstep and don’t want to be offered slippers by your host, I have a small advice: bring a pair of socks with you or house shoes. I usually have some socks in my handbag just in case.

If you are the host there are some ways to make your guests feel more comfortable and relaxed if you want them to take off their shoes. If you know that your guests don’t have the same habit, you can advise them beforehand and ask them to bring some slippers or socks – of course, if you are close enough friends! You can also offer clean (!) house slippers in various sizes available for your guests, but don’t be surprised if the guest does not accept; many people don’t like to take on “used” shoes. It’s a matter of hygiene and putting on someone elses’ shoes can feel gross to some people.

In order to respect the privacy of your guest, foresee a place in the entrance where people can sit and comfortably take off their shoes and place them without being eyed by other guests.

As host you should also always consider the option to not ask your guests to take off their shoes. Simply as a sign of respect for their privacy and personal boundaries, especially if they are not close friends or you know that some of them would not be comfortable with this habit.

Do you have the habit to remove your shoes when entering a home? How do you react when asked to remove your shoes? Do you ask people to do so when entering your home?

St Nicholas and his helpers Knecht Ruprecht, Krampus, Père Fouettard and Zwarte Piet

St Nicholas is celebrated in many countries of Europe, mainly in German speaking countries and throughout the territory of the Holy Roman Empire, and is usually accompained by helpers.

This dark or threatening companion of St Nicholas is called Krampus in Austria, Bavaria, Croatia, Slovenia, Friuli (North Eastern Italy), Hungary (here he is spelled Krampusz); Klabauf in Bavaria, Austria; Pelzebock or Bullerklas in Northern Germany or Knecht Ruprecht (from Old High German hruot, ”fame“, ”shiny“). In the Czech Republic, the helper is called Čert (Devil) and Anděl (Angel). In Luxemburg he is called Houseker. Rubbels is his name in German-speaking Lorraine and Hans Trapp in Alsace, and Le Père Fouettard in Wallonia, Northern and Eastern France. – In German speaking countries there are innumerable names of this feared figure: Ascheklas, Bartel, Bullerklas, Bullkater, Busebrecht, Butz, Butzebercht, Dollochs, Düsseli, Einspeiber, Erbsbär, Hans Muff, Hans Trapp, Kehraus, Klaubauf, Klausenpicker, Klombsack, Krampus, Leutfresser, Pelzebock, Pelznickel, Pietermann, Pulterklas, Ruklas, Rupsack, Schmutzli, schwarz Käsperchen, Semper, Spitzbartl, Zink Knatsch, Zink Muff, Zwarter Piet etc.


Some of these figures have the ressemblance of a red (or black) devil with cloven hooves and goatish horns: like Krampus (which derives from the Old High German krampho “claw, hook, cramp” (9./10. century)).

Krampus!These figures most probably originates from the tradition of the Perchten. In the alpine regions of Bavaria, Austria and Southern Tirol, these figures are the “ugly Perchten” (Schiachperchten) who have “fangs, tusks and horse tails which are used to drive out demons and ghosts. Men dressed as the ugly Perchten during the 16th century and went from house to house driving out bad spirits.” In some regions of Austria, Bavaria, Southern Tirol and Switzerland, those figures appear in Hordes during the winter (usually to exorcise the winter, later on in February/March), whereas Krampus accompains St Nicholas on the 6th of December.

Uh, d'r Schmutzli.Some others, like Knecht Ruprecht or Schmutzli etc.,  seem more like a rustic version of Saint Nicholas himself. They look very sinister and are dressed in black rags, have a black face and unruly black hair. – Knecht Ruprecht appeared for the first time in a German play in 1668.

These companions come with twigs or whips, rods, a stick or a broom and a sack. They carry a sack of ashes for the misbehaving childern and sometimes they would threaten to abduct disobedient children and put them in the sac. – It was actually a pretty effective method parents used to make their children behave by frightening them that St Nicholas’ companion would take them away in his sack if they’ve been bad.

Le Père FouettardLe Père Fouettard

The French Père Fouettard, the “Wipping Father” was said to bring the whip with him to spank all of the naughty children who misbehaved.

The most popular story about Père Fouettard relates to the year 1150. In this version, Père Fouettard was an inn-keeper/ butcher. It was said that he kidnapped and murdered three children, who were lost and could not find their way home. A somewhat reformed version claims that, the three children, all boys, were passing by the inn-keeper’s house while they were on their way to a religious boarding school. On realizing that the kids were rich the inn-keeper and his wife, kidnapped the three children and murdered them. Several types of torture, all ghastly, are known to have been inflicted on the children by the inn-keeper and his wife, who were set on robbing them. One grisly version tells that, the cruel inn-keeper, and his wife, lured the children, drugged them by offering wine, slit their throats, chopped them into pieces and cooked them in a stew. Another account states that, the children were chopped, salted and stowed away in a salting tub, to be eaten later. (wikipedia)

It is said that St Nicholas, after discovering those crimes, miraculously resurrected the children and returned them to their families. He then forced the inn-keeper to “redress for his crimes” and he had to repent for his sins, becoming Le Père Fouettard. He vowed to follow St Nicholas as his partner forever. – Since then, Père Fouettard accompanies St Nicholas on the 6th of December on his visits to the homes of children. As Père Fouettard, the “Wipping Father”, he whips the undisciplined children, while St Nicholas offers gifts and treats to the obedient ones.

From fearce to tender

In more recent times the fear-bearing creature of Knecht Ruprecht and some of the other helpers mentioned above have been increasingly softened.

In the German speaking countries, the very popular poem by Theodor Storm (* 1817 † 1888) depicts Knecht Ruprecht  as a ”faithful servant“ whose answer in response to the question of the Christ-child (Christkind) shows just how much he prefers handing out apples, nuts and almonds instead of hitting their rears:

Von drauß’ vom Walde komm ich her;
Ich muß euch sagen, es weihnachtet sehr!
Allüberall auf den Tannenspitzen
Sah ich goldene Lichtlein sitzen;
Und droben aus dem Himmelstor
Sah mit großen Augen das Christkind hervor,
Und wie ich so strolcht durch den finsteren Tann,
Da rief’s mich mit heller Stimme an.
„Knecht Rupprecht”, rief es, „alter Gesell,
Hebe die Beine und spute dich schnell!Die Kerzen fangen zu brennen an,
Das Himmelstor ist aufgetan,
Alt’ und Junge sollen nun
Von der Jagd des Lebens einmal ruhn;
Und morgen flieg ich hinab zur Erden,
Denn es soll wieder Weihnachten werden!”

Ich sprach: „O lieber Herre Christ,
Meine Reise fast zu Ende ist;
Ich soll nur noch in diese Stadt,
Wo’s eitel gute Kinder hat.”
„Hast denn das Säcklein auch bei Dir?”
Ich sprach: „Das Säcklein, das ist hier;
Denn Äpfel, Nuss und Mandelkern
Fressen fromme Kinder gern.”
„Hast denn die Rute auch bei Dir?”
Ich sprach: „Die Rute, die ist hier;
Doch für die Kinder nur, die schlechten,
Die trifft sie auf den Teil, den rechten.”

Christkindlein sprach: „So ist es recht;
So geh mit Gott, mein treuer Knecht!”
Von drauß’ vom Walde komm ich her;
Ich muß euch sagen, es weihnachtet sehr!
Nun sprecht, wie ich’s hierinnen find!
Sind’s gute Kind, sind’s böse Kind?

(1) I came here from the forest / I tell you, it is a very holy night! / All over the tips of the firs / I saw bright flashes of golden light; / And from above, the gates of heaven / I saw with open eyes the Christ-child / and as I wander through the dark forest / I hear a light voice calling me. / ”Knecht Ruprecht“ it called, ”Old man / Lift your legs and hurry! Fast! / (2) The candles alight / the gates of heaven open wide / old and young / shall rest from the hunt of life / and tomorrow I shall fly to earth / as it shall be Christmas again!“ / (3) I said: ”O dear master, Christ / My trip is almost at an end; / It is only this one town / where the children are good“. / ”Do you have your sack with your?“ / I said: ”The sack, it is here; / apples, nuts and almonds / solemn children do enjoy“. / ”Do you also have your cane?“ / I said: ”The cane, it is here. / But only for the bad children, / to hit their right rear“. (4) The Christ-child spoke: ”That is good; / So go with god my faithful servant!“ / I came here from the forest / I tell you, it is a very holy night! / Speak now how I find it here / Are the children good or bad? (©Sutter)

Also in The Netherlands and Belgium, the servant Zwarte Piet was previously a more demonic character, then a Moorish partner responsible for organizing the gifts for the children. Only after 1845, when the primary school-teacher Jan Schenkman writes the book Sint Nicolaas en zijn Knecht (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”), a Spanish servant is introduced into the St Nicholas narrative. The servant is described as a page boy or young man, and is depicted as a dark person wearing clothes associated with Moors. In 1891, in the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas, the servant is called Pieter (for the first time) and many other names followed until 1920. “In the early 20th century the Civilized Standard Celebration for children, with Zwarte Piet as the standard personal servant of the saint, spread throughout the country.”

During the 20th century, the character of Zwarte Piet changed into a real friend of children. – He still carries a bag, but in the bag are sweets, which he throws around for all children. Also the number of Pieten multiplied and female Piets were included. This paradigm shift offered the possibility of creating several different Zwarte Piet characters. “During the televised yearly event, when Sinterklaas arrives by boat, he is often assisted by dozens of Piets, for example there’s a Hoofdpiet (Head Piet) who carries the book of Sinterklaas, a Rijmpiet (Rhyme Piet) and so on.”

During the last two centuries, Zwarte Piet changed from an “enslaved devil, forced to assist his captor” to the likeness of a Moor, a servant of St Nicholas in the 19th century Netherlands. This new Zwarte Piet also changed the attitude of the Sinterklaas character: he became more severe towards bad children himself and did worry many teachers and priests “due to the depiction of a holy man in this light”. – Today, both characters are much softer. Since immigration increased from the former colonised countries, the “Zwarte Piet became a much more respected assistant of Saint Nicholas, inattentive but playful”. – Due to the recent debates and protests about the future of the Zwarte Pieten in the Netherlands, this all might change very soon. How is the “Zwarte Piet” or “Piet” going to look like? Will the future Pieten be “just” helpers? How will their dresses look like? Will there be different characters of helpers or only one? – Piet has changed so much during these last two centuries, maybe it’s time to move on. But does moving on really mean to completely abolish and reject something that Dutch children (and many adults!) cherish and look forward during this time of the year? What are options that meet the needs of people who want to maintain the Zwarte Pieten and those who want them to “leave”? Maybe a colourful coexistence of past figures and new ones? How would the new ones look like?

I just hope that they will find a compromise that permits children to still sing the traditional songs without feeling judged by celebrating St Nicholas and to wear those colourful clothes while attending the intocht and the weeks following the arrival of Sinterklaas.

English: Two children dressed up as 'zwarte pi...

English: Two children dressed up as ‘zwarte pieten’ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)