My husband is second-generation Dutch-American, so he grew up celebrating Sinterklaas Day (St. Nicholas Day) along with Christmas every year. He takes his traditions very seriously, so we continue to celebrate the holiday, albeit with an American flair. I doubt our celebration very closely reflects the way it’s done in the Old World, which is good. (I’ll save my thoughts on Sinterklaas’s deeply offensive helper Zwarte Piet “Black Pete” for another time.)
Sinterklaas Day is celebrated on December 6th, and this year we were fortunate enough to be able to share our tradition with my brother and his family, who were visiting from Texas.
My five young nieces range in age from 9 years to 12 months, and like my stepson, have been raised to believe that Santa is not real. This is much to the dismay of their grandfather, who also takes his traditions very seriously. My stepson, however, has been taught that although Santa Claus isn’t real, Sinterklaas is. I know that this has resulted in some very interesting, and occasionally heated, discussions with his schoolmates.
When all of the family arrived on Sinterklaas Day, we showed them our wooden shoes full of licorice and the presents and treats we received in our stockings. I gave everyone their own set of decorative wooden shoe ornaments to take home, since my own family heritage is Dutch-American as well (although several generations more removed).
My husband sat my nieces and stepson down and told them the story of St. Nicholas, and how he lived over 1700 years ago, eventually becoming the patron saint of children and sailors. After he died, his remains were transported to the city of Bari, which was part of Spain at the time. Thus, the modern day Sinterklaas arrives every year by boat from Spain to deliver gifts and treats to the Dutch children.
My husband is a good storyteller, and was able to keep the five older wiggling, squirmy, chatty kids relatively still and engaged. I wasn’t paying close attention to what he was saying, but was familiar enough with the story to not be too concerned about the content. We had supper and played games, and the girls really seemed to enjoy their experience.
You never know how children are going to interpret and internalize the stories that they’ve been told, however. Most of my nieces probably enjoyed the story, but didn’t give it much thought. My stepson has been hearing this story since he was a baby, so it was already familiar to him. But, five year-old Niece Number 3 put some thought into it. She came up to my husband and me after dinner a few days later and told us matter-of-factly, “I know Santa isn’t real because Santa is dead.”
Our jaws dropped. Grandpa swung around in his recliner. Mom and Dad looked up from what they were doing, confused. We asked her to repeat what she said, not sure that we had heard her correctly. But it was exactly what we thought she said the first time.
My husband looked around the room sheepishly and said, “this might be my fault.”
My niece had taken his story about St. Nicholas as Sinterklaas and connected it with St. Nicholas as Santa Claus. And because we have established that there is no Santa Claus, and that St. Nicholas lived and died a long time ago, she came to the “natural” conclusion that Santa is dead. Perfectly logical.
Luckily, everyone in the room (except Grandpa) was on board with the “Santa isn’t real” line of thinking, so no illusions were shattered by her revelation. But I so want to be a fly on the wall the first time she shares this with her friends back home.
Photos by author, all rights reserved.