Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Vrolijk kerstfeest en een gelukkig nieuwjaar!

Holiday Series Day 7: The Netherlands and Friesland

Dam Square all festive, Amsterdam, NL

When first attempting to carve out what makes holidays in Holland the best, I had a difficult time focusing on a non-biased matter of fact description, since my own experiences all came flooding back. That being said, I would feel amiss if I didn't at least first try to explain a few of the splendid parts that make the holiday season in the Netherlands (and fabulous Friesland!) a wonderful time. So, bear with me now as we first delve into a few "must haves" at any Dutch holiday celebration, and explore some of my own experiences from this wonderful little country. (Yes, Welmoed, I just called it little. Don't take offense. :P )

Sint and Piet- the best of friends
To begin, their holidays start much earlier than ours. The first part of their festivities takes place on the night of December 5th. You see, that is Sinterklaas- when Sint, Zwarte Piet and Amergio travel all the way from Spain to check up on all the young Dutchies, give the good ones sweet treats and surprises in their shoes, and bag up all the naughty children to bring back to Spain. That's right, they bag up the naughty children. Scare tactics work wonderfully on young impressionable souls. But no, in all seriousness it's not a scare tactic, just an old tale. On December 5th the kids place their shoes (boots preferably- more room for surprises!) outside the door or along the fireplace with a few treats for Amerigo the horse and a few for Sint and Piet as well. 

Amerigo and his besties (besides me of course)
If you know of my passion for horses, it should come as no surprise Amerigo is one of my favorite parts of the Dutch holiday. He is the tall grey/white horse that Sint rides in on each year. Sint is all dressed up in his red and white bishop-esque robes, with his helper Zwarte Piet garbed in renaissance attire at his side. There have been countless movies about their adventures, including my favorite Winky's Horse. Once Sint and Piet have been paraded throughout all the major cities and done their duties December 5th, then take board the next ship back to Spain with all the naughty kids stuffed in sacks below deck. Being practical as ever, the Dutch stores even sell these burlap sacks for parents to conveniently leave for Sint's convenience the night of the 5th. Thoughtful, right? 

Besides the children's surprise gifts, Sinterklaas also incorporates a family gift exchange. Somewhat similar to our white elephant, it take gift wrap to the next level. Families get together the weekend prior to or following Sinterklaas for the big exchange. Now, it is different for each household (some are more extreme than others), but I will share with you my experience. Get ready, it's a fairly long description.

For the Sinterklaas celebration, my Friesian family told me to pick out a thoughtful or funny gift and write a poem to its recipient. We all drew names a few weeks prior to the event, and then spent hours trying to find the ideal gift. I drew my host brother Bate and since he is a very classy gent I searched all across London during our Thanksgiving break for a Bond style hat. Skyfall had just come out and he, a few friends and I all went to a neighboring city to watch it in one of the Bioscoop theaters. 

Anyway, what I didn’t realize was that rather than wrapping these gifts normally, it is expected that each gift giver disguise their gift in mysterious wrappings of some sort. I'm sure Welmoed, my host sister, explained this tradition to me, but I must not have fully comprehended as I was lamesauce and just wrapped mine in festive Christmas paper from home. I still felt confident about my gift, since I had written a brief poem and thought the hat would earn a smile. I had completely underestimated the dedication of my fellow family members. 

I don’t recall many of the specifics now, but from what I do remember, someone built a life size jail to mock a family member’s speeding ticket and hid their gift items inside, forcing him to crawl within the jail cell. I can’t recall all the other gifts, but trust me when I say they were all humorous and heartwarming at the same time. Some were homemade concoctions of wood, nails, etc. while others were the store bought variety like mine. 

A photo of me with most of my Dutch family in my little kitchen/dining room. Miss them like crazy!

Of course, I do recall how craftily my present was wrapped. My host sister, Welmoed, knew of my passion for everything ponies, and so she wrapped all my presents and hid them inside the belly of a small black horse. No, not a real horse, but a construction of chicken wire, yellow foam caulk and painted glory. She had literally wired together a horse skeleton, storing the presents inside the chicken mesh belly, and then caulked the entire thing before painting it black and adding a mane and tail. To get my presents, I first had to claw my way through the foam and then use a wire cutters to pry open the chicken wire stomach. There was a lovely poem to go along with it that made me tear up at the time and was full of sentimental endearments from our time together. Needless to say, the whole evening really meant a lot to me and helped me greatly in getting through the holidays whilst abroad. For full details on that night and for the full poem, check out my old blog entry.   

Now that I’ve gotten that emotional rant bit out of my system, back to holiday staples of the Netherlands. I was told to mention the food selections, and although I am sadly a bit remiss on this topic, I do have a few key bits that complete the Dutch sweets selections. Since my host family ate only wholesome and organic foods, my holiday dinner with them was a bit different than is traditional, but they still took care to introduce me to the essentials: kruidnoten, pepernoten and oliebollen. Firstly, here's what you need to know about kruidnoten versus pepernoten. And yes, that means they are definitely not the same thing. My favorite are the chocolate covered kruidnoten that you can find in every Aldi, Albert Heijn and Deen this side of the Ijsselmeer (and the other for that matter).

Secondly (and lastly) is Oliebollen. Not a typical Christmas food, they are traditionally served around New Year’s. Similar to donuts, Oliebollen always come in a ball form, but can have a wide variety of toppings or filling such as raisins, pudding, powdered sugar or crème. My all time favorite are the raisin ones with a bit of powdered sugar on top- messy as all get out, but delightfully so. 
Such as this delicious pile of Oliebollen
 Now, similar to the Swiss, it is custom for holiday dinners to decorate the dining table with all sorts of holiday finery and fill it full with delicious foods. As I mentioned previously, my family always focused on wholesome, organic foods. Just because most Americans associate organic foods as being un-flavorful doesn't mean that's accurate. I can assure you that our dinner spread for Sinterklaas was stunning. We had mushrooms sauteed in something delicious, a cooked roast of beef from their own farm, a variety of beverages, lots of greens, and too many other foods to name. Unfortunately, I was a klutz and managed to spill my moscato on the ham and bree wraps. Luckily, my family just laughed it off and decided to enjoy the additional moscato flavoring. 

Now that I have spent the entire blog post discussing Sinterklaas, I suppose it's about time I got to Christmas day, right? Well, there isn't too much to tell. Christmas eve and day are equally heartfelt and full of holiday spirit, but it is truly a time for family and/or religion. Since only about 39% of Dutch citizens are religiously affiliated, you can probably guess which of those two is more celebrated. Yup, you nailed it- family! Usually immediate family will gather and share an intimate dinner, followed by some family time with a few Christmas shows and possibly a few presents around the Christmas tree. 

Ice skating is a big hit once the canals freeze over
One big difference, the Dutch celebrate two Christmas days and both are recognized holidays in the Netherlands. The first is on the 25th and is dedicated to immediate family, delightful foods and relaxing or spending time in nature. Day two on the 26th is usually a time to enjoy leftovers from the previous day, travel to visit other family weather permitting, and potentially go ice skating if the canals will allow it. There are a few other characteristic Dutch foods said to be the staples to Eerste en Tweede Keerstdagen such as the kerstkransjes (Christmas wreath cookies that hang on the tree), kerststol (a fruited Christmas loaf- not to be confused with an American fruit cake), meats & roasts, fondues and gourmetten

Gourmetten- Essentially a central grill on the table to produce all things delicious

Alright, alright, I know this post is supposedly to focus on Christmas centric holiday traditions, but it wouldn't be a Dutch holiday season without mentioning the New Year's shenanigans. I already touched on Oliebollen, but there are three other items I want to briefly discuss: carbid canons, midnight festivites and Elfstendentoch. During the New Year, it is custom for the Dutch to light off fireworks and cannons such as this and this and this.

The homemade canon we used for New Years
Usually that takes place all day long with make-shift canons made from milk cans, soccer balls and other funnel shaped objects lying about that can withstand the reaction. They put carbide into the cannon, pour in some water, seal off the top with a soccer ball or can lid, let it simmer for a bit, then light it off. Usually the more carbide/water and the longer it sits, the farther the lid will fly and the bigger the boom. As our celebrations went on, the little kids present were assigned as runners to go fetch the flying objects. I surprised to learn that people don't usually get hurt from this practice- in fact, more injuries are sustained from normal fireworks during new years. As the cannons fire, homemade oliebollen are passed about and enjoyed. It’s a completely different experience, but somehow just so very Dutch. 

Something else very Dutch- using your bike no matter the conditions
As everyone rings in the new year, it is popular in most cultures for kisses and good feelings to be shared. The Dutch take this to the next level. For an American such as myself, where we take a "hands off" policy towards most intimacy between strangers, it was a bit of a shock- but refreshing. As the new year bell chimes, every mingles about the room to wish every (and I do mean every) single person a happy and successful new year. I use the word "wish" loosely, since they not only say the words and drink to your happiness, but then lean in and do the usual triple cheek kiss. So it's say the words, then 1-2-3 kisses, and lastly drink. Repeat. All around the room. Fun stuff, right? 

Mmkay, since I was living in Friesland for my internship, I need to bob a nod to one last (FRISIAN!) custom: Elfstendentoch or the Eleven cities tour. It doesn't happen very often, but when all the canals freeze over enough to support thousands of ice skaters for a span of days, then the party commences. Aptly named, the ice skating tour follows down the canals through the original eleven founding cities of West Fries. A true party on ice, families all across Friesland gather and skate from one end to the other over 200 kilometers. It only happens every so often due to conditions, but Friesians are said to suffer from Elfstedenkoorts (tour fever) in January in anticipation. For more info on that, check out good ol' Wikipedia.

The entire elfstendentoch tour route
For more fun facts about the Netherlands complete with lovely videos and graphics, check out and like this  facebook page! Now, not to overwhelm you, but stay tuned because this afternoon Hannah is going to amaze us with the full English Christmas experience. I heard that Butter Beer and trips to Hogsmeade might be involved, but don't quote me on that. 

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