One of the few celebrations that is very special to the Netherlands. It has snacks, songs and of course gifts. But like all things that define your childhood, it changes. In most of my adult life, there has definitely been a place for Saint Nicholas and it still has a reservation. So on this festive day, I wanted to put down some of my thoughts and nostalgia on the whole development. Because that is what your thirties are for.
The Saint Nicholas story in one sentence is: an old white man with a red robe and big book rides on the roofs on horseback with helpers to deliver gifts to all the good kids.
Childhood Saint Nicholas – Like a Christmas movie
Saint Nicholas felt more exciting than my birthday to be honest. Probably because there is at least 10-14 days of buildup towards it. And that is done by putting your shoe near the chimney, stuffing it with a carrot or hay, singing a song and then receiving a gift. In my never-up-before-9 childhood, this ritual was one of the few things that had me jumping on my parents’ bed.
Another thing I remember fondly is going through huge catalogues and looking at all the toys and stuff I might want. Thinking back that I got excited about furbies and toy dogs, makes me very happy that my parents were smart enough not to give me those things though.
I was a firm believer in the existence of this mysterious man, mainly because of his horse. At the same time, I never liked the guys that dressed up like Saint Nicholas, especially if they did not wore a red robe or were on horseback. My parents also made the smart decision to skip the dress up part, so I did not suddenly recognize my dad’s or neighbor’s slippers.
There were always Saint Nicholas welcome parades and an actual news channel that starts about 3 weeks before the celebrations. I had zero interest in any of this, even though I accepted the tv Saint Nicholas as the REAL one. I always found it difficult to immerse myself in programs where real people played an, in my eyes then, fantastical role.
And although there are many good snacks for Saint Nicholas, I remember always getting the most basic ones at school. You had these disgustingly sweet chocolate mice and frogs, which apparently have always been factory produced. Then there were the peppernuts, which you can now get in at least 20 flavors, but was not as versatile then. Let me just say it, the basic ones are not all that good. Lastly, it was the so-called taaitaai which is actually tough twice in Dutch and describes the snack perfectly. It is tough, not all that sweet and tastes like something very calvinist, very simple and devoid of enjoyment.
Tween Saint Nicholas – A lesson in growing up
Many people have a certain moment of epiphany when they realized Saint Nicholas was not real. Some may even feel betrayed by parents and family to have been told this lie for years. That was not the case for me. I cannot really remember when I knew Saint Nicholas did not exist, but I do remember everyone else getting very persistent on this, especially from 10 onwards. Those who were believers got ridiculed for getting pulled the wool over their eyes, and not believing was something the cool kids did. And I did not understand this mentality. At all. So what I remember very clearly, is talking with my mom about this and telling her I just liked the idea. Why was the whole focus on immediately throwing out the whole idea and tradition? Just because it is not true, does not mean you cannot enjoy something right? She agreed and told me we could decide in our own family that Saint Nicholas exists and we ‘believe’ in him. And a few years later, in 2007 All is Love came out which voiced this exact idea in its intro. I never felt so validated.
You can finally buy all of the good snacks, or let your parents buy them.
Just like with other celebrations that get less special as you age, Saint Nicholas loses a lot of its magic. It is not that it gets a lot less fun, just that it pales in comparison to what you used to feel. Even though you can still do everything, the excitement is gone. It does not come back, and that is something good to start learning early.
So what is Saint Nicholas like as a real adult? As you move abroad? As society changes? More to follow soon!