Last night I made an iTunes Christmas playlist and right now it’s playing at random.
Of the 122 songs, I have to say Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is my all-time favourite. It’s a very catchy song and no matter how many times I’ve listened to it, I always want to either sing along or get up and dance despite the fact that I am not great at either. Here’s how well I dance… according to my husband, I dance like Elaine in Seinfeld. Funny enough, he and I met at a dance club. I was dancing when he spotted me; He said he was drunk.
Mariah gets me into the Christmas mood but it’s Amy Grant that makes me want to do more for others each December. The cold winter days add to this want of mine, to do more for those who have no shelter and no access to hot meals. I wish life was fair, but it isn’t. It is the way it is, but it doesn’t mean I can’t do something. Even if it’s small and even if it only touches one person’s life.
I loved Christmas when I was a kid. I remember spending a handful of my childhood Christmas with my paternal grandmother in Indonesia. She was a Catholic Chinese-Indonesian with a strong Dutch influence. I don’t think she went to a Dutch school like my grandpa did but between the two of them, it felt like we had more of Dutch traditions than Chinese or Indonesian ones. She was never on the date, mainly due to the grandkids’ school schedules, but she would give us a bag of sweet treats on the weekend closest to December 5th, which according to the Dutch is the eve of Sinterklass’s birthday. My favourite treat was, still is, Speculaas cookies. She would also sing a song while handing out the treats.
Leg wat in mijn schoentje,
Leg wat in mijn laarsje,
Dank je Sinterklaasje!
My grandmother had a huge heart. Even after her kids had grown and left the home, she continued to cook like she still had eight kids to feed. There was always a lot of food and amazingly, they never go to waste. There was always a family who benefitted from her cooking. I think maybe, this is why I have a soft spot for helping feed others in need.
She wasn’t though the warm type of grandmother. She was the old school: strict, aloof, and in my opinion, a cross between Dowager Countess Violet Crawley and the witch from Hansel and Gretel. I knew that she could never turn me into a gingerbread cookie but sometimes, just sometimes, I felt like maybe she could.
I am sure my parents had a lot to do with how I behaved growing up but I strongly believe that it was my grandmother who inadvertently made me the good child that I was. During each of our early December visits, before she handed us our sweet treats, she would tell us the story of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). If you’ve never heard of Zwarte Piet, he’s the scary version of Santa’s elf. I said scary because Zwarte Piet was my version of Jangles the Clown.
Like the elves, Zwarte Pieten help Santa with the big book — that big book with all the names of good and naughty kids. Like the elves, Zwarte Pieten help Santa with the presents. But there is one other thing that Zwarte Pieten do that put them in the scary department of my mind. They put very naughty children in their bags and take them away to Spain for a year. To Spain because that’s where Sinterklaas resides (Sinterklaas has great taste).
Imagine me listening to that Christmas story at 5 years of age. A story that was told by my Dowager-witch grandmother.
Yup! There was no questioning of what behaviour would put one in the naughty (you get a lump of coal) or very naughty (Spain in a bag) list. Was not finishing my dinner naughty or very naughty? Was punching my brother in the face naughty or very naughty? Or it was ok since it was him who was mean to me. I was just defending myself! My critical thinking at that age was non-existent and in our family, children weren’t allowed to question adults. So questioning would probably put us in one of the naughty lists. In my childhood days, most everything was either black or white, good or bad, or salty or sweet. Not much in between!
Knowing who I was then, most likely after the first time I heard the story, I made up my mind that there was no way I was going to taken away, in a sack nonetheless, for a year by some scary (not natural) black man (or woman, but I didn’t know back then) to some country I didn’t know about!! So every day I did my very best to be a good girl. Not for my parents, not so that I could go to heaven (I knew I’d go to heaven even if I were extremely naughty since I was told many times by the same grandmother that Jesus loves all children), not for the presents even, but so not to be taken away to Spain in a bag by Zwarte Piet. Oh, did I ever tell you that I was extremely scared of the dark? Yeah!
How did Zwarte Piet enter Sinterklaas’s life? Many said it was popularised in the Netherlands after a primary school teacher from Amsterdam, Jan Schenkman, published his book Sint Nikolaas en Zijn Knecht (Saint Nicholas and his Servant) in the mid-19th century. As most know, Saint Nicholas was a Greek (although his birth town Patara is now a part of Turkey) born sometimes during the 4th century to wealthy parents. After his parents’ death (from an epidemic), St Nick sold all his wealth and used the money to help others less fortunate than him until his death on December 6, 345. St. Nick may have servants helping him but I couldn’t find any info on this.
Now that I am a grown woman and having visited Spain. I kind of wished I was very naughty. A year holiday –even if my job was to pick oranges for the whole year– in Spain would have been delightful!
Zwarte Piet quit being a part of my Christmas when my grandmother passed away in the early 90s. Actually, Christmas was never the same after she left. My grandpa wasn’t very religious and my parents are Muslim. While my parents would take me to/from church, get me gifts, etc. It just wasn’t the same.
Then I met my husband… He, without knowing it, helped me make Christmas a favourite holiday once more.
We were still dating then and he invited me to spend Christmas with his family in Mississippi. He wanted me to meet more of his family and also to see more of where he grew up. So we drove from Kansas City, Missouri to just outside of Memphis, Tennessee, on the Mississippi side, where his parents lived.
Christmas day came and I could never forget the look on his face. It was our first Christmas together and each time he opened a present from me, his eyes would light up and the biggest, sweetest, boyish smile would soon appear. In the background, his dad was making approving noises and his mom was teasing him about how much I was spoiling him. That whole scenario, especially that joyful look on his face, was what made Christmas my favourite holiday once more.
Two Christmas later, Emma joined us. Christmas has been fantastic with just hubby but with a kid, Christmas became more magical! I had more fun buying presents and on Christmas day, seeing her eyes light up, even when she didn’t quite understand, was precious. Five years after that, Jovie came about and her presence has added more joy.
A few old traditions, even ornaments, from hubby’s childhood reappears every year. I would buy speculaas when I see them at the store (usually Aldi/Lidl) and new traditions have been added. By accident, we have even included Elf on the Shelf. But for whatever reason, I never brought Zwarte Piet back into our Christmas tradition. I don’t think it’s because of the controversy, I think it’s just because I want us parents to be the one credited for the good behaviours of our children 😜
Have a fantastic Sinterklaas Eve and Day and it really isn’t that bad to be very naughty if it means a trip to Spain 😂