Christmas is perhaps the most perfect and slightly sneaky time to serve up a little world cultural awareness to kids. Learning about the Christmas traditions of other lands is just fun. There is always food, new games, and novel gift giving ideas to get excited about. Nobody even notices that there are also lessons in geography, culture, and traditions also happening at the same time. Of course, it’s hard to notice those little details when you are baking treats and stuffing your face with them.
Why the emphasis on studying other cultures at Christmas?
Elf on the Shelf nonsense and melting snowman cookies just aren’t happening here, so I make myself feel better about eschewing the Very Pinteresty Christmas by doing my own version of Christmas fun for my kids. Because travel and cultures are a natural passion for me, recreating the celebrations of another country is an easy way to add a little spark to the holidays.
To that end I plan to study at least one new country and its Christmas customs each year, adding crafts, cooking, and traditions into the celebration. My hope is to give my kids a glimpse into a new country and culture, and maybe even add a few new traditions to our family Christmas celebrations.
Last year, we learned about the traditions of Las Posadas, a Mexican and South American Christmas tradition. The kids are already asking when we are going to make bunelos and whether we will do the processional again this year. I certainly anticipate that we will be throwing around a few Feliz Navidads again this year, but I wanted to jump across the ocean and celebrate the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas.
When you have an entire collection of wooden shoes, it just makes sense to celebrate a holiday that endorses filling those shoes with chocolate and toys, right?
~Choosing a pair of wooden shoes in the Netherlands~
The Netherlands is a country that we have actually visited, so it is good to recall the memories of that in country experience with a new layer of learning surrounding the holidays. It is also a natural marriage of the celebration and understanding of St Nicholas Day, a day that is recognized around the world on December 6th and plays into the mythology of the American Santa Claus.
What is Sinterklaas?
Sinterklaas should sound familiar to our American ears; it is from this Dutch word that we derive our beloved Santa Claus. The Dutch figure in red has many similarities to our American counterpart, but the celebrations and presentations do have some distinct differences.
Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands sometime in mid-November, making his entrance by steam ship from Spain into a chosen port. The arrival of the figure clad in red bishops robes and his helper, known as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), is broadcast on Dutch television and marks the beginning of the holiday season.
In the weeks between his arrival and St Nicholas Day, Sinterklaas travels the country to determine if children have been good or naughty. During these weeks, children will leave their shoes by the fireplace, often with carrots or hay for Sinterklaas’ white horse. If Sinterklaas visits to check up on behavior and finds that children have been good, he will fill the shoes with treats.
The celebration culminates on December 5th, St Nicholas Eve, with gifts, food, and parties. The Dutch particularly enjoy surprises, so gifts are often intricately wrapped to conceal the true contents of the package or clues are written to lead on a scavenger hunt to find presents. Clever rhymes about the recipients are also included with the gifts.
~Warm, sweet, and yummy Dutch Pastries~
Treats for Sinterklaas
Food during a festive celebration seems to translate in any language, and the Dutch know how to do it right with plenty of sweets. Peppernut or pepernoten cookies are a gingerbread type cookie that are a staple for Sinterklaas, but I wanted to make something that would be more foreign (and required less ingredients) for our celebration.
Banketstaaf or Letterbanket is a flaky pastry filled with almond paste and shaped into a wreath, log, or the first letter of each person’s name. Not only did this recipe look easy, but it has the hands on fun that I want to kids to enjoy in these celebrations. Basically, this is just playing with playdoh that is edible, and if you purchase ready made products, it is literally a piece of cake to bake.
Ingredients for Letterbanket:
1. Preheat the oven to the specified temperate on the puff pastry box.
2. Open the puff pastry on a lightly floured workspace and put to the side for a moment.
3. Roll the almond paste into a thin log that is almost as long as the width of the puff pastry.
4. Place the log of almond paste onto the puff pastry and roll the pastry around the almond paste.
5. Use a pastry brush to wet the edges of the pastry to seal the pastry around the almond paste*Most Letterbanket seem to be very large and meant for slicing, but I wanted to make small letters for each member of the family. To do that, I created several small rolls of pastry and almond paste to be shaped into letters. Once the almond paste log was completely encased in pastry, I used a pastry cutter to cut the pastry and begin a new roll.
6. Form the roll of pastry into the initial of the name of each person in your family.
7. Brush the pastry with egg white and sprinkle with nibbed sugar. Other toppings can be melted apricot jam, glazed cherries, or toasted almonds. Basically, just make your own.
8. Bake until brown and serve warm.
Celebrating the Fun of the Season
I had plans to create a craft of sometime to complement our celebration, but it just didn’t happen. Maybe next year we can add this Sinterklaas paperpiecing quilt for a fun creation. Because the Dutch enjoy adding surprises to their celebrations, we crafted a scavenger hunt with clues for places around our home. At the end of the scavenger hunt, the kids found a new board game and a few small treats. Speaking of next year, I think we also might have a wrapping contest to see who can best conceal the true contents of the package. Yes, there is always next year.
Use the link below to print easy clues to create your own Sinterklaas Scavenger Hunt.
Of course, the centerpiece of the celebration is placing our very Dutch wooden shoes by the fireplace (filled with carrots for the horse) and hoping for Sinterklaas to bring presents while we sleep. We fill the shoes with a few chocolate treats and small toy or two for each child, which makes for a fun morning the next day.
Resources for Celebrating Sinterklaas
This site has a great overview of Sinkterklaas from a Dutch person living in America. Includes tons of crafts, recipes, and ideas for celebrating.
Videos that show the arrival of Sinterklaas with English subtitles