10 Nov, 2004 | TravelTdp

In the Netherlands (I almost said Holland) they celebrate Christmas, but in a rather low key affair, somewhat like the Americans. Instead the US has it's big hoo-hah for Thanks Giving at the end of November, the Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas on 5th December, that's their big event.

Actually it all starts two or so weeks before. Sinterklaas, you see, sails up on a boat from Spain, mounts his white horse (no sleighs here) and with his Black Peters (a somewhat non-PC version of elves) he leaves little treats for the two weeks in the shoes children by their fireplace overnight in exchange for carrots and hay left for his horse. Then, on the 5th, the big celebrations and present-giving occurs and by the 6th he's gone and the build-up to Christmas starts.

Sinterklaas, literally Saint Nicholas, looks completely different to the common image of Father Christmas/Santa Claus. He sports a costume that, whilst red, looks more like something a bishop or cardinal would wear (rather appropriate as that's what he once was).

Sinterklaas is helped by a mischievous bunch of Zwarte Piets -- Black Peters -- which are usually potrayed by people wearing black body paint and dressed like a victorian jester whose job it is to hunt out and punish naughty children.

Tradition also demands that the presents given on the day are camoflaged in some imaginative way, or the recipient is made to hunt for them, and accompanied by an original poem which is designed to poke fun at the recipients mannerisms or habits, and should be read aloud for everyone to enjoy. The recipient is not supposed to know who the present comes from and simply says 'Thank you, Sinterklaas,' out loud.

I think it's wonderful how different nations have different customs for what I've always thought was a standard tradition. I also like the sense of fun the Dutch appear to have instilled in the holiday. Maybe we should all remember what Christmas is really about, no matter what your religion, having fun and spending time with friends and family.