CHRISTMAS IN HOLLAND

SINTERKLAAS EN ZWARTE PIET

Snug in our little brick house on a cold Saturday in November, Yves and I yawned into a quiet day with an espresso and lots of blankets. It wasn't long before I heard some sort of clamoring on the canal outside, and when I drew back the curtain, I was unexpectedly filled with all the exhilaration and excitement of a 5-year-old girl. Amidst the shrieks and tears of the little child inside me, I flung open the door and ran to the canal edge. The drawbridge was raised, and through it came a royal procession of majestic boats. Perched aboard the glorious lead ship was Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten. They waved as they passed me and my little house, and crowds of fanatic children ran waving and screaming after them at the canal's edge. Having awakened that little 5-year-old Laurie with my heart beating fast and my eyes open wide, I couldn't bear to wait for Yves or even tell him I was going, and I ran along with the other Dutch children to Leiden's main square.

The children were dressed in royal velvet costumes of gold, violet, and ruby. Some cheered and screamed in a frenzy, and some stared silently in astonishment at the goings-on. All the people in the city must have been there, including Yves who finally found me in the crowd. Acrobats catapulted through the air, dozens of helpers dressed as Zwarte Pieten with bright velvet costumes threw pepernoten (gingerbread biscuits) from boats, and Sinterklaas rode his white horse through the crowd to the stadhuis (city hall), with a parade of such gaiety and musical celebration following him that the holiday season's inspiration spread for miles around.

Sinterklaas is celebrated in The Netherlands from his November arrival by steamboat from Spain until Saint Nicholas' Eve on the 5th of December. During this time, children put out their shoes each day with offerings of carrots and hay for Sinterklaas' white horse. If they're well-behaved, they might find their shoes filled with candy and little gifts in the morning. Sinterklaas songs are sung and speculaas, marzipan figures, and alphabet-shaped chocolates and pastries are enjoyed by everyone. I will miss Christmas back home in Wisconsin, but oh, how I do love Holland!