My husband’s father came to the U.S. from the Netherlands when he was four. His parents settled in West Michigan, long known for its heavy population of Dutch immigrants and their descendants. When I moved to Grand Rapids, I noticed every name seemed to begin with “Van Der” or end with “-ema.” When E and I got married, no one mispronounced my name (which sounds like “HARK-uh-muh”), but when we moved across the country, I found I was suddenly Japanese instead of Dutch (ha). Everyone I met inevitably pronounced it “har-KEE-muh.” Like Iwo Jeeeema. [Insert groan here.]
Few people I meet in my wanderings know much if anything about Dutch culture; and indeed, until I married E, I didn’t know much myself. But over time, things like Dutch hagelslag, stroopwafels, and the tradition of giving children chocolate letters shaped like their first initial, something E’s grandparents did every Christmas, have become part of our family life, especially at Christmastime.
I confess, I like to spread out the Christmasing over weeks. We put up the Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving (Black Friday what? I’m too busy decorating). I love to celebrate Advent with treat calendars and a daily devotional that follows the story of Jesus’ family (we love Ann Voskamp’s Unwrapping the Greatest Gift for this). This year, I wrapped a stack of Christmas picture books and put them under the tree; we unwrap one every night before bedtime and read it aloud. (Need a list of Christmas reads? Try this one from Read-Aloud Revival).
This year, I decided to add Sinterklaas, also known as St. Nicholas Day, to our family traditions instead of lumping in the chocolate letters and other Dutch bits and pieces with our Christmas Day hubbub. On Sinterklaas Eve, December 5, Dutch children traditionally set out their wooden shoes. If they’ve been good, Sinterklaas leaves treats in their shoes during the night. Traditionally, those treats are the Dutch chocolate letters I mentioned above. My girls don’t have wooden shoes (yet), but L does have a pair of wooden shoe-style slippers like these. This year, we’ll set them out to see what happens. I’m quite sure Sinterklaas will be leaving chocolate letters there in the night. We’re also doing some Sinterklaas baking: the traditional speculaas cookies. On Sinterklaas morning, I suspect there will be toast with hagelslag for breakfast.
A tradition from my own childhood is the gift of new pajamas on Christmas Eve. This year, I’ve decided to move that to Sinterklaas Eve, to give the girls more chances to wear their matching Christmas jammies before Christmas actually arrives. Finally, I’ve set aside a couple of picture books about St. Nicholas and a book on Christmas in the Netherlands to read aloud this week.
Adding some holiday traditions from the Netherlands has been both fun and meaningful. It’s inspired L to start asking me, “How do they celebrate Christmas in Germany, Mom? In France? In Africa?” The key takeaway here, I think, is that you don’t have to be Dutch or German or French or any other culture by blood to appreciate different traditions and add them to your own. If you’re celebrating Jesus and what he stands for, it will be meaningful.