As you were perhaps paging through a Martha Stewart magazine mid November for a little inspiration on a Thanksgiving centerpiece or savory side dish, we were gearing up for the steamboat arrival of Sinterklaas and his zwarte piet collective.
As you were unfortunately pulling another late night at the office to meet that pre-holiday deadline, we were singing Sinterklaas liedjes in front of our son’s carrot filled boot. As you were contemplating the strange mix of joy, dread, love and chaos that is Thanksgiving, we were watching our son run to his boot to discover yet another present therein.
And finally, as you were regretting that last serving of sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping, suddenly aware of how damned hot you were in your autumn-hued sweater, pushing your chair away from the table, I was asleep. In a different time zone. In a different country. Forgetting all about Thanksgiving.
How can an American forget about Thanksgiving? After all, it is a long standing tradition that ties back to our country’s origins when we broke bread with the Natives, accepted their food, and gave thanks. (Of course we’ll leave out the part where not long after we forgot the being thankful part and killed off the majority of the very natives who’d helped us through that long winter.)
And on an emotional, experiental level, wouldn’t those mostly pleasant memories of family gatherings, happy meals (before the term was co-opted by McDonalds), and those long, post meal walks and conversations in the crisp evening air pull at my heart strings no matter where I now roam?
Yet no strings were plucked. It wasn’t like I was completely clueless or had forgotten about my family. I had spoken to my mom earlier in the week and heard how one brother was heading North to the Bay Area with his family for Thanksgiving, the other brother heading North East to be with his in-laws and how mom was looking forward to the peace and quiet without having to cook anything for anyone.
On the other hand, maybe my subconscious mind decided to just skip that day. Afterall, it was impossible for me to drive on over and spend Thanksgiving with my family, and the few articles I had recently read about the holiday had been less than compelling.
In the Huffington Post, I came across an article about the millions of cramped turkeys strung out on antibiotics awaiting the slaughter, and in the Los Angeles Times, I read some charming articles about how big name retailers moved Black Friday up to Thanksgiving evening–this time the slaughter being of sacred time to gather with family and friends in a celebration for what we already have.
But I have yet another explanation; In Holland ben ik al een beetje gewend. In other words, I’m getting a little used to it here. And a big part of getting used to a new culture is letting go, een beetje, of your own. Rather than letting one’s soul stretch its amazingly long and flexible legs across two continents, causing uncomfortable cramps in the soul’s calf muscle region, it is better to exist where you are. Or, as the songs goes, Love the One Your With. And just as with America, I am developing my own love-hate relationship with my be-here-now homeland away from home.
Being in the here and now, I must report the Sinterklaas madness! I thought Americans went over the top, but Sinterklaas gives Santa Claus a run for his presents. Kids can start putting their boots out by the fireplace, or the radiator should you be lacking a fireplace, as early as mid November and Sint comes to visit on and off all the way to December 5th. If Sint is particularly generous, that could mean 20 days of gift getting! You can imagine the kids are just a little worked up. And, Sinterklaas isn’t some secondary character. He’s everywhere! On the news. On the radio. He even has his own Sinterklaas website. But what really blows me away is what is happening at the schools across Holland.
Ezra was instructed to bring his boot to school this last Thursday because Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Piets were coming to visit that evening. I was just as curious as Ezra Friday morning, and we arrived earlier than usual. As we approached the school yard, we heard the chaos of 150 kids chanting various Sinterklaas songs, running, screaming, jumping and squirming. When the doors were opened, the children pushed their way in, in what could be likened to Black Friday foment, to get to their boots. Although the hallways were lit, the lights to the classrooms were out, and the teachers stood outside the classroom doors like happy wardens, waiting until all of the students had arrived before letting anyone in.
When the door was opened the expectant children surged forth into the biggest mess I have ever personally witnessed: tables were thrown on their sides, toys strewn throughout the classroom, black greasy handprints on the walls. The place was trashed. As I stared in shock, the only slightly phased children climbed over the mess toward their boots on the windowsill, their eyes on the prize. But the boots were empty. And although an empty boot is possible over this 20 day span–Sint can’t go to every house every night afterall–empty boots on such a joyous, expectant occasion can suggest only one thing: naughty, undeserving children. Ezra and I must have come to the same conclusion, as I saw that pre-howl look sweep across his face.
But just then, the teacher happened to notice a note from Rommel Piet taped to a still erect bookcase. It informed the children that he had been to visit and that after the children cleaned everything up, each and every one of them would receive a present. If you haven’t guessed already, Rommel means mess. Wat een rommel, as in, what a mess!
The children reacted in many ways. Some continued to look on with consternation (Ezra), others jumped in and started cleaning up, others spontaneously broke into play. The parents were the last to join in, but after 20 minutes, every last chair was sitting upright and every last Lego, flash card and building block was put away.
Moral of the story? The children had to earn their present. They had to wade through the chaos, do their part to pitch in, and when everyone had helped to make it right, they would all be rewarded. In retrospect, as I made the uncanny connection that it was Black Friday on the westerly part of the Atlantic pond, it seemed that Rommel Piet was some sort of deep, brooding metaphor for the consumeristic state of my home country and the absurdity of Black Friday, or is that Dark Thursday?
Of course Sinterklaas brings his own breed of consumerism, as presents must be purchased, and Sint-specific treats such as pepernoten, chocolate letters and many other sugary goods are almost compulsory items for the shopping cart. But I am nonetheless smitten with the experience and the utter joy that the Sinterklaas season is bringing for our little boy. I do realize we are walking a fine line; on one side is over indulgence and blatant consumerism, and on the other, a cultural experience that nurtures the imaginations of its young citizens. But please, don’t share this latter sentiment with the producers of those chocolate letters.