Tag Archives: Sinterklaas

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…

befane

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):

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@Ute’s International Lounge 2016

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Our multicultural Christmas

Every country, every culture has it’s own ways to celebrate traditional festivities. Some families who live abroad adopt some of the local traditions and adapt them with those they know from their own childhood or from the other places they’ve lived.

Multicultural families need to agree not only on which festivities they want to celebrate but also on how to celebrate them. It’s a decision that involves extended family and friends too. This time of the year many internationally living families are getting inreasingly worried because they know that this topic will cause  friction with their loved ones.

I’ve experienced many changes in the way we celebrate Christmas in my family. My parents tried to maintain the German traditions while we were living in Italy. We had a Christmas wreath and an Adventskalender where we would open a “little door” every morning, starting from December 1rst until Christmas Eve, the 24th December, finding either little chocolates or some nice pictures (that would be illuminated when hold against a window or put in front of a candle or lamp), with the same effect of lighted windows you can find in Switzerland and Germany where houses are sometimes decorated like Advent calendars:

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

Over the years we adopted more and more elements of the Italian way of celebrating Christmas: panettone and torrone became as standard as Lebkuchen and Weihnachtsplätzchen and we would also prefer having fish instead of meat for Christmas dinner. We would have a presepe set up in our living room, but also an Adventskranz (Christmas wreath). – In the last 20 years our family traditions became more and more multicultural, mixing mainly Italian, German and Swiss and, for my family here in the Netherlands, also Dutch habits. These don’t only imply food and decorations, but also celebrations throughout this Christmas season.

A month full of celebrations…

In many European countries Christmas is not the only festivity this time of the year. On December the 5th or 6th we celebrate Sankt Nikolaus in Germany, Switzerland etc., and on January the 6th we celebrate la Befana in Italy and Dreikönige in Switzerland, Germany, France etc. On the 6th December children receive tangerines, nuts and small presents for Sankt Nikolaus and usually a little Sankt Nikolaus Lebkuchen (gingerbread) in Germany and Switzerland, whereas in the Netherlands this is the most importan celebration (see below). On the 6th January kids get candy if they were “good”, and “coal” if they were “bad”.

My husband grew up in Switzerland, and he recalls that Christmas season started (more or less) when they had a Grittibänz at Saint Martin (November 11th). Then Saint Nicholas followed, Christmas cookies were baked and the first Christmas Markets were set up.

Deutsch: Hefeteigmann (Grittibänz), ungebacken...

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Weihnachtsmarkt(1)

What to eat at Christmas…

Christmas is a time to celebrate thankfulness and togetherness and traditionally this is made by sharing meals. In Italy, Christmas is the most important celebration. Families would have a festive dinner on the vigilia di Natale (also called cenone di Natale) on Christmas Eve, December the 24th, where traditionally fish is served (after antipasti and primi). The birth of Jesus is celebrated on the 25th December by cooking festive meals that are followed by panettone (wich is similar to the German Weihnachtsstollen!), pandoro and torrone.

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In Germany, the traditional Christmas meal in my extended family was the Weihnachtsgans (goose; some prefer duck). My grandma served it with red cabbage and potatoe dumplings (find more recipes – in German! – here) after a soup, and Christmas cookies and Christstollen afterwards. – In our family in Italy, we used to have trout for lunch (after antipasti and primi) on the 25th, and some panettone, pandoro, torrone, Weihnachstplätzchen and Lebkuchen… Not all together, of course, but nicely devided over the Christmas holidays… Our Swiss family likes to celebrate with a raclette made with cheese, but meat is also a great alternative and this is very similar to the Dutch gourmetten.

When to open the presents…

In Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany, the presents are handed out on Christmas eve (24th December). The family gathers around or in front of the Christmas tree and sing songs. Children play the piano, the flute or other instruments, and only after having sung Christmas carols all together, everyone opens their presents. – In Italy, like in the US, it is custom to receive the presents on the 25th. – In many multicultural families it is very difficult to agree on the way to celebrate Christmas, on how and when to hand presents. Is Father Christmas bringing the presents or are they offered by family members? My husband and I agreed that as long as our children believe in Father Christmas (Weihnachtsmann), he would be the one bringing the presents – like Sinterklaas a few weeks earlier. In order to have a smooth transition to the “reality” and less magical Christmas, once they’ll know the truth about Father Christmas, we let extended family offer personal presents, so that our children can thank them for their gifts. This combination of traditions is an important aspect of these celebrations which really needs to be agreed with the whole extended family in order to avoid misunderstandings and frictions.

What we celebrate now

Since we live in the Netherlands, our festive time of the year starts when Sinterklaas arrives to the Netherlands in his stoomboot end of November, and ends the 6th of January with the Heilige Dreikönige and the Befana. – Our children follow the whole story about Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten and zetten de schoenen almost every evening. When Sinterklaas returns to Spain on the 6th December, we start decorating our home for Christmas with symbols.

It is common practice to celebrate the Advent (from Lat. adventus “coming”) by lighting one candle every Sunday before Christmas, to symbolize the time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ.

The readings for the first Sunday in Advent relate to the old testament patriarchs who were Christ’s ancestors, so some call the first advent candle that of hope. The readings for the second Sunday concern Christ’s birth in a manger and other prophecies, so the candle may be called of Bethlehem, the way or of the prophets. The third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday after the first word of the introit (Philippians 4:4), is celebrated with rose-colored vestments similar to Laetare Sunday at the middle point of Lent. The readings relate to St. John the Baptist, and the rose candle may be called of joy or of the shepherds.(…) The readings for the fourth Sunday relate to the annunciation of Christ’s birth, so the candle may be known as the Angel’s candle. (cfr. Wikipedia)

 Advent(1)

Once the advent wreath is in its place, we slowly add a few decorations like candles, the winter scenery our children decided to set up some years ago (and we add some details every year) and a presepe.

NLChristmas Presepe

How we are going to celebrate Christmas this year

This year we’ll celebrate Christmas in the Netherlands. The past we’ve mainly been travelling during this time and this year I really wanted to stay put.

This year, my parents will come to visit and we’re all very excited to have them! We have made plans about what we want to do  with them. Christmas, for me, means to spend time together, to focus on one another and enjoy the festive atmosphere. I like the smell of Christmas: the mix of cinnamon, candles, hot chocolate, sometimes Glühwein, Lebkuchen, roasted almonds and marroni. We’ll have a cenone di Natale with antipasti and fish, and on the 25th we’ll do like the locals and opt for gourmetten: similar to the Swiss raclette, fish, meat and vegetables are cooked on small stoves directly at the table and everyone can serve himself. Or we’ll make a fondue… Our children will open their presents on Christmas Eve and we’ll enjoy the erste Weihnachtsfeiertag by having a great festive lunch and going for a long walk maybe at the beach.

©expatsinebirth2014

©expatsinebirth2014

This year my children will get to decorate the Christmas tree with their grandpa. We’re all not getting any younger and I want this Christmas to be a time to build memories. Christmas is the time of the year where we not only are aware of the beginning of an era – a new year! – but also of the ending of one… For me Christmas is a mix of feelings: some sadness about the year that passed, friends who left, but also the excitement about the new. In German there is a nice word for it: Besinnlichkeit. In some countries people have just celebrated Thanksgiving and this spirit of being grateful and thankful for me is the spirit of Christmas that I want my children to associate with this time of the year. I think this is the heritage I want them to have. No matter how and where they’ll celebrate their future Christmases: I would love them to focus on this Christmas feeling.

Candle and decoration on a German Christmas tree

Candle and decoration on a German Christmas tree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know it’s still a few more days until Christmas, but I’d like to wish you all a besinnliche Weihnachtszeit (“reflective Holiday Season”), un buon Natale, un joyeux Noël, en gueti Wienachtsziit, Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Boas Festas and een vrolijk Kerstfeest!

This post is part of the Multicultural Kid Blogs ‘Christmas In Different Lands’ series. Each day of December up until the 25th a different blogger around the world shares a part of their family Christmas.

Bildschirmfoto 2014-12-14 um 11.26.16

About St Nicholas and his legend

A medieval fresco depicting St Nicholas from t...

A medieval fresco depicting St Nicholas from the Boyana Church, near Sofia, Bulgaria. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sinterklaas or Nikolaus, San Nicola etc. in European countries is based on the legendary figure of St Nicholas. Born in 271 AD to a rich Greek family in Asia Minor in in the city of Patara (Lycia et Pamphylia), he was very religious from an early age. His parents died by an epidemic while Nicholas was still very young and he was raised by his uncle (also named Nicholas), the bishop of Patara. ” He tonsured the young Nicholas as a reader and later ordained him a presbyter (priest). “(wikipedia) Nicholas decided to distribute his wealth to the poor and become a priest. Later he became the Arch Bishop of Myra, a place near the city of Anatolia in Turkey.

He had the reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him and became the model for Santa Claus (celebrated on 24th or 25th December), whose modern name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas in turn comes from a series of elisions and corruptions of the transliteration of “Saint Nikolaos”.

The fame of St Nicholas’ good deeds began to spread across the Mediterranean and he became known as a patron saint of children, sailors, merchants, archors, travellers and of the city of Amsterdam. Therefore this figure has a special meaning to the Dutch and to the children.

There are many legends about St Nicholas. One tells how a terrible famine struck the island and a malicious butcher lured three little children to his house, killed them and placed their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Saint Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry, saw through this horrible crime and resurrected the three boys from the barrel by his prayers. In another version (from the 11th Century), the butcher’s victims were three clerks who wished to stay the night. The man murdered them and intended to turn them into meat pies. Saint Nicholas saw through this and brought the men back to life. – These kind of legends seem to have originated some of the well known helpers of St Nicholas in many European countries.

The legends with the most likely historical basis are those with St Nicholas being the helper or being the secret benefactor:

Nicholas heard about a man who had lost all his money. He had three daughters who were old enough to get married but had no dowry.

This family was so poor they had nothing left to eat. The daughters were going to be sold as slaves because they couldn’t live at home any longer. They were very sad. They wouldn’t be able to have families of their own. And they would have to be slaves—no longer able to decide where they would live or what they would do.

The night before the oldest daughter was to be sold, she washed her stockings and put them in front of the fire to dry. Then all of them went to sleep—the father and the three daughters.

In the morning the daughter saw a lump in her stocking. Reaching in, she found a small, heavy bag. It had gold inside! Enough to provide food for the family and money for her dowry. Oh, how happy they were!

The next morning, another bag with gold was found. Imagine! Two of the daughters would now be saved. Such joy!

And the next night, the father planned to stay awake to find out who was helping his daughters. He dozed off, but heard a small “clink” as another bag landed in the room. Quickly he jumped up and ran out the door. Who did he catch ducking around the corner? – Nicholas, the young man who lived with his uncle. “Nicholas, it is you! Thank you for helping us—I hardly know what to say!” Nicholas said, “Please, do not thank me—thank God that your prayers have been answered. Do not tell others about me.”

Nicholas continued helping people. He always tried to help secretly. He didn’t want any attention or thanks. Years passed and he was chosen to be a bishop. Bishops look after their people as shepherds look after their sheep. And that is what Nicholas did. When there wasn’t any food, he found wheat; so no one went hungry. He always helped people in trouble. All his life Nicholas showed people how to love God and care for each other.

Everyone loved Nicholas. After he died, they told stories of the good and kind things Nicholas had done. Sailors took these stories about Nicholas everywhere they went. Some of the stories were about his special care for children—helping and protecting them when danger threatened. And so more and more people learned about good, kind Nicholas. They wanted to be like him. He is an example of how we should live. And that is why he became a saint. (Carol Myers)

Sinterklaas, Nikolaus, Befana or Heilige Drei Könige?

When you live in a multicultural family and context, there are moments where you have to decide which festivity (or holiday) you want to celebrate with your family, extended family, friends etc.

During this time of the year, there are a few traditions that seem very different, but are quite similar.

Sinterklaas or Nikolaus?

Saint Nicholas arriving by boat

Today, on the 5th of December, in the Netherlands people celebrate Sinterklaas and Pakjesavond, whereas in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary and some other countries, Nikolaus, Sankt Niklas or Samichlaus arrives on the 6th of December. He usually has only one helper: Knecht Ruprecht, Schmuntzli, Krampus, Bullerkas, Beelzebub, Hans Trapp, Housecker, Père Fouettard, Rupelz etc.., but in the Netherlands he has lots of Zwarte Pieten.

Well, if you live here in the Netherlands, you can  choose either to celebrate in the Dutch way, adapting to the social context or in the German, Swiss, Hungarian etc. way. We decided to adopt the Dutch celebration. As we never happened to be in Switzerland or Germany during these days of the year, our children never questioned the difference between these traditions. They accept it like the differences in classical tales (I will talk about this in an other article).

When I was a kid, I used to live in Italy and our italian neighbours didn’t celebrate San Nicola. As far as I know, only in the region South Tyrol, San Nicola is celebrated (San Nicola is also the patron saint of the city of Bari, but they don’t celebrate him like in Germany and South Tyrol). I remember that when I was a kid, my italian friends were very keen to learn about our german festivity. I was very proud of celebrating Nikolaus, but I also liked their festivity: the Befana.

La Befana or Heilige Drei Könige?

La befana

The celebration of La Befana seems very similar to Sinterklaas and Nikolaus, and takes place on the 6th of January.

La Befana is an old woman – often represented as a witch – who flies on her broom stick every year on the night between the 5th and 6th of January, the Epiphany day, to bring presents to children. She carries these presents in a big bag on her back. Usually she brings lots of sweets, and she will fill the stockings kids have left on the chimney. – Very similar to the Zwarte Pieten in the Netherlands, the sweets come down the chimney…

Well behaved children will find sweets and chocolates in their stocking on the day of the Epiphany. Those who didn’t behave will also get a few lumps of coal. Nowadays this would be sweets in the shape of coal.

Everyone loves La Befana in Italy, she is a lovely old woman with a long crooked nose, broken shoes and a patched dress.

In Germany, Switzerland etc. on the 6th of January they celebrate the Three Wise Men or Three Kings (Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar). In Spain, these three Wise Men will receive letters from children and bring them gifts on the night before Epiphany. In Spain, each one of the three Magi represents one different continent: Europe (Melchior), Asia (Caspar) and Africa (Balthasar). These Magi come from the Orient on their camels to visit the houses of all the children. Pretty much like Sinterklaas on his horse or Sankt Nikolaus… If the children in the Netherlands prepare a carrot and some hay for Amerigo, the horse of Sinterklaas, in Spain it is traditional to prepare food and drink for the camels (apparently this is the only time in the year they can eat).

In Spain and Portugal people eat a cake (Roscón de Reyes) to celebrate. It’s ring-shaped, most commonly bought, not baked, and it contains a small figurine of the baby Jesus (or another surprise depending on the region) and an actual dry broad bean.  The one who gets the figurine is crowned, but whoever gets the bean has to pay the value of the cake to the person who originally bought it.

In France, Belgium and Switzerland the cake (galette du roi, Dreikönigskuchen) contains a small figure of the baby Jesus or a small king, is shared within the family. Whoever gets the bean is crowned king for the remainder of the holiday and wears a cardboard crown purchased with the cake. The practice is known as tirer les Rois (Drawing the Kings).

In our family here in the Netherlands, we decided to celebrate Sinterklaas on the 5th of December along with all our Dutch friends, and Heilige Drei Könige like in Germany, Switzerland etc. with a little old woman arriving on her broom stick on the 6th of January…

Did you also choose to celebrate festivity in another way than you used to in your childhood? Or did you maybe choose to celebrate one festivity instead of another?

I would be very interested in knowing what made you take this decision and how you think and feel about it.