Merry Sinterklaas!

I don’t think that’s a thing people say, but ya know what? I like it so I’m going with it.

The arrival of Sinterklaas kicks off the season in mid-November.

It’s December 5th which means it’s pakjesavond (present evening) and if you were a good little one throughout out the year, maybe Sinterklaas replaced that carrot in your shoe with some treats! Tonight is the big gift-giving evening of the Dutch holiday season!

This could very well be our last holiday season in the Netherlands since Shane’s next position is still up in the air, and I’ve used this time to fully embrace the spirit of Sinterklaas. And by embrace, I mean eat myself sick on Sinterklaas-specific holiday treats.

So, in honor of the evening I thought I would do a quick round-up of those holiday goodies you will only find during Sint-season!

Pepernoten! Pepernoten! Pepernoten! Pepernoten!

THE thing. Without pepernoten there is no Sinterklaas!

I’ve literally seen them sold in a 5 kg (10 lbs) bag…

There are two types: pepernoten & kruidnoten.

Both are small cookies, but pepernoten is the more traditional version with an anise flavor. Kruidnoten are a more like a spiced cookie. Since I’m not a fan of anise, I tend to prefer the kruidnoten – as does my mother who made a special request for “those delicious little cookies” the last time Shane came home. Lucky for her, the grocery stores have started to push the seasons, and pepernoten have been available since October!

The kruidnoten section in our local grocery store.

The flavor possibilities are endless. There are entire seasonal shops which sell only pepernoten, kruidnoten, and flavored kruidnoten aka: the cookie covered in some form of flavored chocolate.

Carmel sea salt, coffee, raspberry, dark chocolate, lemon… not that I’ve tried any.

Chocolate Letters

Another important gift of the season, and another one that comes in all shapes, sizes and flavors – although the most popular flavors are milk, dark, and white chocolate.

Tradition dictates that you’ll receive the letter which corresponds to the first letter of your first name. But, if you’re name starts with an unpopular letter (sorry Quincy or Zelda) then you’ll be hard pressed to find them. If this is the case, the standard “S” – for Sinterklaas – is appropriate.

Chocolate letter… with pepernoten!

Marzipan

Particularly in the form of a pig.

Conveniently displayed next to the “super kruidnoten”.

Yes, that pig is made of marzipan. Yes, it will get chopped up and sold as smaller pieces.

If a chunk-o-pig ain’t your thang, no worries. Small pigs are also available.

The marzipan pig (made of milk, sugar, and almonds with a consistency of soft fondant) is a New Year’s German tradition to wish good luck (Glücksschwein!), and also a holiday gift tradition in Scandinavia. Given the relative location of the Netherlands, it’s not surprising it carried over.

Banketstaaf

Loosely translated to an ‘almond log’, it’s a buttery, almond-paste filled little piece of holiday heaven with origins in the Netherlands.

A word to the wise: share it. I mean, or don’t, but be prepared to go into a sugar-almond-million-calories induced coma afterwords. #worthit

My Sinterklaas paketje from work – a chocolate letter & banketstaaf.

Speculaas

Speculaas is a shortbread cookie with a spiced flavor similar to that of pumpkin pie spice in America. Actually, if you’re in America and lucky enough to live by a Trader Joe’s then you might know these cookies – called Speculoos, which is the Belgian spelling. You can usually find some sort of speculaas cookie year round, but this time of year the cookie itself changes to a more festive pattern.

Speculaas – smeckulaas. BOOOORRRINGGG.

Ditch that plain cookie, and go for the filled one!

Gevulde Speculaas

My crème de la crème. Re-named to ‘crack-ulaas’ for its sheer power of deliciousness.

Take two, large planks of soft speculaas spiced cake and add some almond paste (same as in the banketstaaf) in the middle and BOOM.

FILLED SPECULAAS. You’re welcome.

I’m genuinely sorry for anyone who isn’t able to try it. So, if you happen to run into some, buy it!


And with that, I’ll leave you with my favorite song of the season:

Sinterklaas (wie kent hem niet) by Het Goede Doel

I recommend the entire video, but if you’re in a hurry start at ~1:30.

Gah, the 80’s were great!

Tot ziens,

Whitney

The Final Countdown!

It’s official!

In less than a month we’ll be making our way home for the holidays! To kick it off, this weekend was a weekend of celebrations! Shane turned 30, Sinterklaas arrived, and we took a little stroll through the Groningen countryside. So, the last part really isn’t a celebration but we did it, and it was cool.

First things first, Friday. Shane’s Birthday!

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We kept it pretty low key, but we did go out for dinner & may or may not have eaten the entire cookie cake by the next morning.

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We also took the long way home through the city. It’s that time of year when all the lights have gone up, and the city itself just feels so cozy despite the dark and cold. The Dutch word for this would be ‘gezellig’. Just that happy, warm, cozy feeling you can’t really describe, but you know it when you feel it. There was also a festival to celebrate and encourage new, city wide innovations. Part of this was a musical swing set in city center! I’m not entirely sure what the meaning behind the swings were, but they were fun to play on!

Saturday we* woke up bright and early like a kid on Sinterklaas morning! OH WAIT! It WAS Sinterklaas morning!

*we actually equals me.

Anyway, maybe you don’t know this about me, but I LOVE parades. Sinterklaas is a double whammy of awesome because it’s two parades in one! First, good ole Sint arrives from his long journey by boat from Spain. Then, he hops off and parades through town on his white horse until he meets up with the mayor to officially kick everything off. If you want a little recap on Sinterklass history I talked a little about it, here, last year.

I was particularly excited because Shane was in Switzerland last year during this time. This was his first Sinterklaas experience.

Naturally, it rained.

Did we bring an umbrella? …I’ll let you answer that.

We did manage to find a tree next to the canal which provided enough cover to not get 100% soaked. We also met up with Shane’s lab mate (the one with the giant dog!) who was also a Sinterklaas newbie.

I think the thing Shane was most impressed with was the size of Sinterklaas’ boat. Seriously, this thing was massive and it moved flawlessly (to us at least) through the canals.

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Quick coffee break to dry off and warm up…

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…and it’s time for part 2!

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Sinterklaas’ helpers, the Zwarte Pieten, hand out fruit and pepernoten (small spice cookies) to the kids. They also collect the letters that have been written to Sinterklaas. There were some kids across the street from us are dressed up, letters in hand, screaming “Zwarte Pieeeeeeetttttt!!!”, waiting for someone to collect their letters.

Note to self: Next year, write a letter.

Sunday morning, it randomly snowed.

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But then it cleared up, and we went on a little drive through the countryside with some friends. They took us to Fraeylemaborg, which is a castle in the village of Schlocteren.

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They call it a castle. We called it more of a plantation style house. Although, it did have a mote which is a very castle like characteristic.

Regardless, the house itself dates back to the 1300’s, and the interior reflects the mid 20th century. We were pretty amazed at how similar this was to the old, colonial style houses you would see at home. I mean really, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it was a new perspective for us. The house was built on about 80 acres of land, and behind the house were walking trails through mud gardens.

Now if this doesn’t make you think Pride & Prejudice then I don’t know what will. I’m pretty sure Mr. Darcey will be walking up momentarily…

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To all our friends and family at home, happy early Thanksgiving! We will be having a belated Friendsgiving on Saturday, so at least the holiday won’t be completely lost this year.

I’ll see you in a month, America!

Tot ziens,

Whitney

Sinterklaas has Arrived !

Sinterklaas arrived today!

He, as I’m sure you probably assumed, is the Dutch version of jolly ole’ St. Nick. The story goes something like this…

Sinterklaas comes to Holland on a steam boat from Spain, and he brings with him his ‘Zwarte Pieten’ (Black Pete) helpers. Together, between his ‘intocht’ (arrival) and his birthday on December 5th, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet go down the chimneys of the good children in Holland and deliver gifts. Traditionally, kids would leave shoes and notes to Sinterklaas by the fireplace and the gifts would be left in the shoes. I’m not sure if this tradition still happens today, but regardless I think the incentive for children to be good year round is higher here in Holland as opposed to North America. If you’re on Santa’s naughty list in the U.S. you get some coal in your stocking. If you’re on Sinterklaas’ bad side then you get ripped from your family, thrown on the boat & taken to Spain when he heads back home. It should also be noted that Sinterklaas is NOT part of Christmas. These are two separate things. Traditionally, presents happen during Sinterklaas, and Christmas is a more low key celebration with family over a nice meal.

To welcome Sinterklaas & the Zwarte Pieten the city has a 2 part arrival parade! First, he arrives on his boat and navigates through the canals. This part was really fun. EVERYONE is excited for Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piete, and each boat was like its own little party. One boat had a marching band, one had some very active Zwarte Pieten & everyone on the boats were waving and singing. This one is stuck in my head now. Translates to…

St. Nicholas I beg you,throw something in my shoe, throw something in my boot, thank you St. Nicholas! 

After Sinterklaas makes his rounds through the canals he disembarks and heads into the city on his white horse surrounded by Zwarte Pieten handing out candy and small spiced cookies called ‘pepernoten’. Eventually, here in Groningen, he ended up in city center where the Mayor was waiting to welcome him. I read somewhere that the city parades were made up of things that represented the province of that particular city. I’m not sure if that is true or not, but based on today it would make sense. Groningen is farm country, and today’s parade had lots of horses, Zwarte Piet handed out fruit as well as candy, and there were even sheep!

Sinterklaas seems like a pretty cool guy.

So. Let’s talk about the elephant in the blog. Zwarte Piet.

Yes, they are in full black costume/black face paint. No, it’s not meant to be racist.

It’s been quite the hot topic here lately as the holiday has approached (you can Google it). The entire tradition is being debated, and coming from an outsider’s perspective it’s easy to see why. White Sinterklaas and his black helpers? You can’t help but instantly think the worst. My impression? The Dutch genuinely don’t see it this way at all. To them, Zwarte Piet is a beloved & respected character. I think the Dutch see Zwarte Piet in the same way that we see Santa’s elves. So why is he depicted this way? He is supposed to be part of the Moors of Spain who, according to the story, started working for good ole Sint when they were chased into the Sierra Nevada by the Catholic Spaniards.

Since this has drawn more attention recently The Netherlands has been working on shifting the tradition some. Each year one city hosts the National Arrival of Sinterklaas (it was in Groningen last year, one year too late!) and in this parade Zwarte Piet looks like he is covered in soot rather than full face paint, and I’ve seen candy and figures in the stores with blue, yellow, or red faces.

As an outsider, I think one thing we have to remember is that when it comes to the traditions of other cultures you can’t jump to conclusions. As an American, I think we have to be even more conscious of this since we live in a world where you are constantly having to evaluate if something is offensive to the masses. This is not to say that both sides of this argument can’t be seen, and perhaps it’s OK (and time) to modernize some traditions. #endrant

Yay Sinterklaas! 🙂

OH! I forgot! I saw this at the grocery store the other day. It’s a pig made out of Marzipan. Not sure the significance of the pig *update – the pig is for goodluck!* , but Marzipan is a big holiday treat along with the pepernoten & olieballen (deep-fried dough covered in powdered sugar. de.lish.)

On a completely different note, Shane did indeed make it back from Tanzania! And here is proof….

He has lots of pictures and stories and science to share, but November is crazytown Netherlands for him. (I would usually say crazy town USA here, but that doesn’t seem appropriate…). Once things calm down I’m sure he will start dishing.

Tot Ziens!

Whitney