For those of you that don't know, the Dutch don't give out presents on Christmas Day, but on the 5th of December. They don't have Santa Claus, instead they have Sinterklaas. They're at pains to point out to you that the American/ British tradition of Santa Claus was stolen from them. Sinterklaas comes from Spain - not Lapland - and arrives in the Netherlands each November on a steam boat - a process which is broadcast on TV and is one of those childhood moments for Dutch children that they seem to adore. Each town celebrates his arrival too - last November I was stood in the freezing cold in Leiden town centre watching his big entrance on a boat, surrounded by thousands of screaming children dressed up to catch a glimpse.
Sinterklaas doesn't have elf helpers, he has Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), a supposed slave who was freed by Sinterklaas and decided to dedicate his life to helping out Sint. This has led to lots of white Dutch people painting their faces black to look like Zwarte Piet. These days, you're told that it's because it's from the soot in chimneys (and that his lips are bright red because he's allergic to the coal, but as for why he's portrayed as stupid, who knows....).
Each year there's a massive debate over whether it's racist or not, this year it seems to have blown up more than usual with the UN High Commission on Human Rights writing to the Dutch government suggesting that it could be considered racist. The Dutch Prime Minister replied with "Zwarte Piet is just black. I can't change that." A petition in support of Zwarte Piet got two million likes (quite a bit in a country of only 17million). At the biggest Sinterklaas parade in Amsterdam in November, none of the Zwarte Pieten could wear earrings because they were a symbol of slavery and those protesting against Zwarte Piet were asked to do it silently so as not to upset children. The Dutch are horrified at being labelled racist, it's a huge tradition to them and attacks on Zwarte Piet are considered an attack on their national identity.
I'm not going to get too much into the debate further than that, but it is so odd when you're visiting Holland in November/December, and everyone has painted their faces black and there are thousands of Zwarte Pieten in the supermarket, outside restaurants, in bands inside department stores and at city parades. My Mum visited me in late November last year and I thought her eyes would explode out of her head.
Zwarte Piet helps Sinterklaas out by throwing little gingerbread cookies called pepernoten to children. Last year, I was happily sat in my bedroom only to hear thousands of the things being thrown at my living room window. When my flatmates and I opened the window to find out where they were coming from, we were bombarded with pepernoten from our dressed up Dutch friends and were still finding them months later. If children are naughty, they're not threatened with a lump of coal, they're threatened with being shoved into Zwarte Piets sack and sent back to Spain.
This year, I avoided all Zwarte Piet controversy, but still kinda celebrated Sinterklaas. I left Holland with a number of good friends, we're scattered across Holland (funny that), Finland, the US and Malaysia. For my secret Sinterklaas, I was given my Dutch friend Yoran (I sent him Cadbury chocolate, a lego pirate keyring and about a thousand vinegar sachets which were taken from a pub because apparently England does the best vinegar and I couldn't figure out how else to post vinegar...).
I however, received a lovely looking package from my friend Hanna-Riikka from Finland. Inside was some Finnish chocolate, some Finnish sweets and the eagerly awaited Sinterklaas poem. In Holland, a poem will often accompany your present - it'll usually rip the shit out of you. My poem from Hanna however, was lovely:
This is probably the worst poem in English you will ever read
But I'm not afraid to be writing it to you, since I'm very happy we met
I hope you'll get multiple offers for jobs,
Since your flatmates seem to be complete knobs,
To make you a bit happier, Sinterklaas wanted to send you something Finnish and sweet
And don't worry, it won't include any reindeer meat.
Living at the Swamp with you guys made me wanna cheer
Especially once we had had enough beer
I hope during Christmas you'll get lots of gifts and not just a few
And then you'll be a happy Jew
Nothing will make you feel shitter about the way the English learn languages than the fact that people from Finland and Holland can rhyme in your language better than you can. I couldn't even manage a poem for Yoran, my poetry skills are terrible. Instead I wrote Yoran a list of British slang because he watches far too much British TV and fell upon Jeeves and Wooster, and practically spent a year of his life greeting me with "What ho old chap!" and using other old British slang.
If there's one thing I'm really glad that the internet has enabled us all to do, it's be able to keep in touch with people easily. I got to celebrate a little bit of Holland from my bedroom in England, and that's been really nice. I just hope Yoran enjoys his vinegar.