Our family started Friday morning in Kent, Ohio, with kruidnootjes in klompen (crunchy, gingersnappy, cookie-buttons in old-fashioned, Dutch wooden shoes). We realize this pairing is not typical for most American families or Dutch families — but it’s pretty typical for us (blending American traditions, Dutch traditions, and Swedish traditions) at this time of the year. The kids went to school, and the adults went to work: humming along, on-track with our typical lives.
At noon, however, we jumped the rails.
We knocked off work early, pulled the kids out of school, and drove five-and-a-half hours north-west to participate in a local festival we read about in a single paragraph of a single magazine article from “Midwest Living.”
Our destination: Holland, Michigan. They promised a Sinterklaas processional, and that was enough for us. We didn’t know how authentic or Americanized their version of the Dutch holiday would be. We didn’t know if there would be mobs of people (like what we used to experience during our days back in Amsterdam), or if we would stand out in an uncomfortably-thin crowd. Would there be Sinterklaas songs or treats that we would recognize? How would Americans handle the Dutch tradition of Zwarte Piet, which has racially-charged overtones with the “helpers” in minstrel-show blackface (vestiges of the Netherlands colonial history)? Would our grand excursion be fun and worth the time, money, and energy we invested?
We didn’t know what to expect.
The streets of Holland were beautiful, but quiet, when we rolled into town around 6:30 PM. I’d say it was above-average holiday lights and garlands decorating an above-average Midwestern town filled with brick buildings and brick pavers. We had no trouble finding a parking spot just a stone’s throw away from Centennial Park and the Armory, which were supposed to be the epicenter of the town’s Sinterklaas celebration. We were the only family to be seen on the streets, even though preliminary festivities had supposedly started a half-hour earlier and the grand processional supposedly started a half-hour later. When we got into the Armory, however, there was a pleasant hum of voices and activity. We were greeted by seven or eight teenaged helpers dressed in decently-authentic, probably homemade, Zwarte Piet costumes. And it turned out they were just fine without any face paint at all. Some of them called themselves “Elves,” but we were OK with that. They gave us Tootsie Roll Pops and fun-sized Snickers and Milky Way bars for treats.
Each of our kids was given supplies to create their own paper lanterns: a small dowel-rod, a rubber band, a paper-and-metal frame, and a small battery-powered flashlight. Most Dutch children do the lantern thing in early November, for a different holiday (Sint Maarten’s), but we learned that the lanterns were supposed to be a part of the Sinterklaas processional, so we were glad to go along with it.
After ten minutes or so, we decided to walk a couple of blocks to Holland’s Market Square, which they designated as a “Kerstmarkt” with perhaps a dozen wooden stands selling food items and hand-made crafts (only a couple of which were Dutch- or Sinterklaas themed). And there: at the end of the market, we saw Sinterklaas himself. His costume was decently-authentic, probably store-bought, and he sat astride a white horse, very similar to the sort of horse that he would ride in the Netherlands. A Piet / “Elf” held the reins to the horse, much like he would in the Netherlands, as a small crowd of families stood around taking pictures.
At 7:00 PM, the processional started. It felt a little bit strange that there was no music (which would be a pretty significant element of such events in the Netherlands), but it was fun to walk through the streets of Holland with Sinterklaas, a couple hundred people taking pictures, carrying lanterns, and chattering happily. Around 7:15 PM, we arrived at Centennial Park. Sinterklaas dismounted and proceeded to the central Gazebo. Local dignitaries said a few words, Sinterklaas was introduced, he taught the crowd to count to three in Dutch, and then we all counted: “Een… Twee… Drie…” And (after a slight delay due to presumed technical difficulties), the town’s big Christmas Tree lit up to a round of cheers and applause.
After the tree was lit, the crowd disbanded fairly quickly. We didn’t know exactly what was happening, but we followed the crowd to a grand old building, flanked with marble pillars, just across the street from the park. There everyone crowded the steps up to the building, which turned out to be the Holland Museum. Over the course of perhaps half an hour, everyone filed into the building. Inside, we snaked through the exhibits — a mix of Dutch artifacts and items from the town’s history — until we got the chance to meet Sinterklaas himself. The people standing in line with us were a mix of locals and visiting Hollandophiles, like us. Some were Dutch citizens; some were married to Dutch citizens or children of Dutch citizens. Several used to live in the Netherlands, so we got to speak more Dutch than I expected. It was a fun camaraderie that made the wait a highlight of the evening. Towards the end of the line, we were served hot cocoa and Dutch butter cookies, which were not very authentic, but still a nice gesture.
At the end of the line, we got our chance to meet Sinterklaas and take our picture with him. The coolest thing of all was that the American Sinterklaas actually spoke Dutch! We asked if we could sing him a Sinterklaas song, and he suggested “Sinterklaas Kapoentje!” The streets of Holland were quiet again, when we emerged from the Holland Museum. We said good-bye to some of the other families that had been standing in line with us, and then we drove back to our hotel for some swimming and sleep.
It was fun. Nothing life-changing, but a very enjoyable excursion. Our family enjoys our connections to Dutch culture, but we’re also happy to be American Midwesterners — and this weekend felt like the perfect combination of the two worlds.