Sinterklaasfeest and a patchwork cultural heritage


We haven’t really celebrated “Dutch Christmas” for the past few years here in the van Loon house. I was going to say it was because Oma died in 2010, and we haven’t celebrated since she’s been gone — but that’s not really true. We sort of stopped doing much for the holiday even when she was alive, beyond making sure we made phone calls.

To be honest, it’s at kind of a crappy time for family get-togethers if family members are involved in school, or live far away. If we’d all lived in Vancouver getting a couple days off work would have been simple. But I was in Nanaimo from 2008 to 2012 and mom was in Powell River — and before that, we were in Hawaii. Everyone understands getting time off for Christmas — that end of December period — so you can fly home or take a ferry to see your loved ones. But December 5th? That’s finals week.

So it was hard to keep the celebration going each year. Often we just let it pass with a simple “Happy Sinterklaas!” to each other. Maybe mom and Oma said it, and more, in Dutch; I don’t know.

We talk a lot, in social justice circles, about how culture is like water and we’re fish. It’s so a part of us we don’t notice it.

This is true. What is also true is when parts of your culture are missing, you notice what’s not there. I’m not talking about the feeling of missing something that many Westerners get that then drives us to search for spiritual fulfillment elsewhere, often resulting in cultural appropriation problems. That’s a different thing, much bigger, more complicated; would make for a much longer blog post that I just don’t have the energy for right now. I’m talking about the strange feeling of being a first-generation Canadian, child to Dutch immigrants on one side and a mixed race US immigrant on the other, and the bits of culture that my parents had that I’m missing, and the bits that my grandparents had that my parents are missing too.

(The experience of culture loss on my dad’s side is a wholly different thing, though, and I won’t be talking about it here. I’m not trying to conflate post-WWII European immigrant experiences with 1950s Midwest American Indian experiences.)

My mom came to Canada when she was 3. She spoke Dutch as her first language, but she learned English early enough that she could be considered a native speaker. She continues to speak both languages well, approaching near-fluency in Dutch (if not full fluency). If you asked her I don’t think she’d disagree with my assessment of her youth: she spent a lot of it running away from her home culture. It happens. Being a post-WWII immigrant in Canada wasn’t easy; if one could assimilate, one did.

No houten klompen so I'm improvising with my Mary Janes. Gelukkig sinterklaasfeest!

Tonight’s improvisation with Mary Janes instead of klompen.

By the time I was born there was some reconciliation on my mom’s part with her home culture, I think, though truthfully she probably considers herself a Yukoner before she considers herself anything else. I grew up celebrating Sinterklaas Day with my Oma, getting chocolate letters* in my klompen left by the fireplace the night before, and blaming any gift mishaps on Zwarte Piet. (I know all about the racist implications now, but I didn’t then.)

Sinterklaasfeest was the main thrust of my connection to my Dutch heritage, though to this day if I need to find a set of these in someone else’s house it’ll take me several tries to get the English words out (while my fiance stares at me in horror and confusion, wondering if I’m having a mental breakdown as I shout at him in Dutch). Beyond a few words here and there, I don’t speak the language. I can attempt to translate it if I see it, but likely I won’t be able to.

Language is so much of culture, and it’s where I really feel the missing pieces. Oma used to call me schat, which is an endearment. It means treasure, or honey, darling, sweetheart. There were other words, too, that I can hear her say in my head but I couldn’t write them out if my life depended on it. She and mom would talk to each other in Dutch all the time, and often — more often as she got older — Oma would weave through Dutch and English without taking a breath as she spoke to us. She spoke Dutch when she talked about the Netherlands, mostly. We would have to stop her, and ask her to translate to English for me.

I spent so many years saying I was going to learn Dutch so I could just let Oma ramble on in whatever language. I tried, but I never got far. (It’s not an easy language to learn.)

Throughout my life, online and in meatspace, traveling and at home, I meet other Dutch people, often folks from the Netherlands, sometimes other Dutch immigrants or children of Dutch immigrants like myself. This is when I’m really struck — by how much is familiar, and how much is alien. This is when I see that the comforting parts of my Dutch cultural heritage that I like to wrap myself in when I’m feeling homesick are like a patchwork quilt that’s missing half the patches. Only so much can be safety pinned on by visiting the Holland Shop, or going through my Oma’s things. It feels like there’s something missing, there, something fundamental.

I’ve come to believe that the only way to find these missing pieces is to go to the Netherlands. The homeland. The source. The place where my ancestors were born and walked. The place where my mother was born. I want to go there and soak up the stories the land will give me.

It’s far off in the future. A huge undertaking, a trip like that. But a goal — shining ahead of me, something to work towards.

Sinterklaas Day care package, arranged on my ancestor altar. <3

The goodies on the ancestor altar, where Oma and Opa can enjoy them too.

In the meantime, an amazing friend has made Sinterklaas Day feel a bit more real, more homelike, for me this year. She lives in the Netherlands, and she put together a care package to send to me of traditional Sinterklaas Day goodies — some of which I can get in the Holland Shop, must mostly I can’t, and these were handpicked with love besides — along with the traditional poem. It arrived last week and I was able to pick it up yesterday. I immediately placed the goodies on my ancestor altar and didn’t touch them till today. My mom translated the poem from Dutch to English.

It made me feel like I was really home again. Like Sinterklaas Day had come once more and the past several years were just a temporary lull. And it made me feel good about celebrating that piece of my heritage again, about finding ways of building new traditions around it so it becomes something I can introduce to my future children.

Today, I got to have speculaas, kikkers & muizen (marzipan/fondant covered in chocolate — really sweet, really good), schoentijesmix, kruidnoten, and pepernoten with my coffee. And as my dessert. I got to read a poem by a friend, written just for me. Tonight, I put out my klompen — ok, I put out my Mary Janes. I don’t know where my klompen are, and at this point I’d need new ones anyway. (Besides, according to my friend in the Netherlands klompen are not required — any everyday shoes will do! And often, kids will try to put out more than one pair.)

Today, it felt like Sinterklaasfeest for the first time in many years.


*chocolate letters are sort of a big deal in my family. It’s hell on earth to find the correct letters for every person in your family (at least here in the Lower Mainland it is; the letters you need always sell out the fastest and you have to improvise), so going through the process of finding them for someone is a signal: you’re part of our family now. I don’t think my fiance fully understood that meaning behind it when he got me a chocolate K for Christmas one year, and thus was quite surprised when I started crying. (I mean, the crying was also because it reminded me of my Oma, and family, and FEELS, etc. It was a very emotional moment over chocolate, is what I’m saying.)