Dutch holiday season about more than just Christmas

Ryan Ross
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Siblings Sven, left, Tim and Meagan Vermunt show off the traditional wooden shoes their family leaves out by the door for St. Nicholas every year during the holiday season.

This is the fourth in a six-part series called Christmas at My House.
The series looks at how Christmas Day is celebrated in the homes of Prince Edward Island residents from one tip of the Island to the other. The stories will be carried in the print and e-editions of the newspaper as well as online all week.
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While Santa keeps his list of children who are naughty and nice, Dutch children have to be on their best behaviour for someone else.

That someone is Black Peter who carries branches to hit misbehaving children with or, if they’re really bad, he’ll carry them off in a sack.

Where does he take them?

Back to Spain where he and St. Nicholas come from on boats every year on Dec. 5 as part of the Dutch holiday tradition.

Although St. Nicholas is similar to Santa Claus in some ways, he isn’t part of Christmas.

For the Dutch, St. Nicholas and Black Peter are part of a different holiday event during which children get little ginger cookies or, if they sit on St. Nicholas’ lap and tell him what they want, they get a chocolate letter.

While many Canadian households hang stockings with care, in Monique Vermunt’s house in Elmwood they still take part in the Dutch tradition of setting out wooden shoes by the door with a carrot in them for St. Nicholas’s horse every day for a week.

Good children get a candy or maybe a small toy in their shoe.

Bad children, of course, get nothing.

The Black Peter tradition, known as Zwarte Piete, has become more controversial over the years, in part because it involves someone dressing in

blackface and what some have said are racist undertones.

Vermunt, who has been living in P.E.I. since 2005, disagrees and said Black Peter is black because he slides down chimneys and gets covered in soot.

“That’s why he has the colour and that’s what we were told when we were little.”

In the Netherlands, Christmas is pretty much the same as in Canada, Vermunt said, although instead of Boxing Day they have a second Christmas day for visiting family.

“Most people do one part of the family one day and one part of the family the other day.”

New Year’s Day is also big for the Dutch who Vermunt said celebrate with fireworks.

“Everybody who is home will have fireworks.”

When Vermunt was younger and still living in the Netherlands, some people on her street used to start the fireworks at 10 a.m. and the kids would run through the streets with spinning sparklers or loud noisemakers.

“You would just go through the village and that’s how much fireworks there is.”

But even now that she’s in Canada, Vermunt still gets part of that tradition thanks to her in-laws who are Dutch and live across the road.

“We still have fireworks every year.”

They also still have a big get together for New Year’s Day and her mother-in-law makes a traditional dessert known as oliebollem, which Vermunt described as being like a big Timbit.

Vermunt said her in-laws, who have been in P.E.I. since 2001, still have a packed house on New Year’s Day with people looking for the oliebollem.

“There’s so many people who know she makes them every year.”

 

rross@theguardian.pe.ca

twitter.com/ryanrross

Geographic location: Spain, Elmwood

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  • White Petie
    December 20, 2013 - 09:57

    Its a good thing you have wooden shoes!

  • dutch
    December 20, 2013 - 08:56

    Zwarte Piet being called racist is yet another example of white guilt. That being said, I feel as though there is a compromise that can be made. His face is covered in soot, as the tradition states. Why not then avoid "blackface" and just rub soot on the character's face?

    • Anneke
      December 20, 2013 - 13:10

      Some do rub soot on the face as a compromise. But it makes you very recognizable…