Christmas traditions

Southern Sinterklaas: Merging Holiday Traditions

“Anything sweet in the cupboard?” I asked. December and the holidays bring out the worst in my sweet tooth.

“We still have some of these…”

Vicki pulled a tall, rectangular cardboard box from our food pantry. Colorful pictures of narrow buildings adorned all four sides of the box’s top. On the front panel, right below a blue-and-white image of a windmill, was a picture of a circular waffled wafer.

“Stroopwafels!” I opened the box, looked at Vicki. “I forgot we had ’em.”

“We bought these at Costco a while back.”

I undid the cellophane wrapper, took out a stroopwafel, and bit into it. “Still fresh.” I smiled. Glancing at our wall calendar, my smile faded. “We forgot about Sinterklaas, again, this year.”

Vicki sighed. “Yeah, we did.”

Products of Holland

Stroopwafels are two thin waffled pastries with a caramel-like filling. They’re about the size of the mouth of a standard coffee cup. A classic Dutch treat, stroopwafels have been around since the 19th century. Now, like many foreign foods, stroopwafels can be found in the foreign or imported foods section of U.S. grocery stores, “Product of Holland” printed on the box. Twenty-five years ago, however, that was not the case. Finding Dutch treats in the States was like finding a Dutch speaker living in the Mississippi Delta.

Vicki is also a product of the Netherlands…and of the States. Her mother, Elisabeth, met Sam, a young American research student, while he studied in Holland. Sam invited Elisabeth to America and, eventually, they married and settled here.

Southern Mutt

When Vicki and I started dating, I thought it was neat that she was half Dutch. It was unique. Kind of cool. So, meeting Vicki and learning that her mother grew up in Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, was very cool.

Me? I’m an American Mutt—a mix of ancestors from Scotland or Ireland, likely some English, and probably a little German thrown in. With light-brown hair, blue eyes, and pale, freckled skin, I’ve been told I’m Scotch-Irish, a breed typically found here in the South.

Vicki was an East Texas gal. She had grown-up in Houston and in College Station, Texas, and she graduated from the “real” UT, in Austin. Sure, there were family stops in East Lansing, Michigan and a year in Switzerland. Heck, she was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. But back then, Vicki was a Texan through-and-through.

We’re both hybrid-Southerners. Me, a brown-haired pale guy from Florida, which, as we all know, is not the “Real South.” Just a place to vacation and to retire. And Vicki, a woman with roots in a tiny country in Europe that most folks couldn’t easily find on a map.  Doesn’t help that the Dutch refer to themselves as Nederlanders, or that some Americans think the Netherlands and Holland are two separate places.  The multiplicity reminds me of Auburn University’s various mascots and nicknames: the Tigers, the Plainsmen, and the battle cry War Eagle!

Family Holiday Traditions

When people marry, they bring a mixture of family experiences and traditions to their union. Rinse the dishes before they go in the dishwasher, or not at all? Is the bathroom glass actually glass or is it plastic? Same with holidays, particularly Thanksgiving and Christmas: ham or turkey on Christmas, or a roast? Sweet potato casserole on Thanksgiving? (Of course…and don’t call them yams.)

Vicki and I were no different, except that our merged traditions would include Dutch influences. As a mutt, I wanted our kids to experience their heritage and those specific traditions from Holland, along with a few Indonesian twists.

We blended certain Dutch holiday traditions with customary American practices—skewed slightly Southern—to form our own family traditions. For our family, Sinterklaas became a holiday celebration we could call our own, even here in the land of barbecue and Elvis.

Sinterklaas Celebration

In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is both the name of the holiday celebration and of the legendary figure who resembles Saint Nicholas. Our family traditions focus on the Sinterklaas celebration, which takes place every year on December 5th. Much like Christmas, the evening of December 5th is a time of festivity and gift-giving.

In Holland, children put their shoes by the fireplace and await a gift—either that evening or the next morning—from Sinterklaas. For many years our children, Emily and Zach, did the same thing with their sneakers or boots. Candy, treats, a small toy, and even gift cards would miraculously appear in their shoes. As our kids grew older, a single Sinterklaas gift, as we called it, would be wrapped—like a Christmas present—and handed out on December 5th.

Obviously, we also celebrated Christmas on December 25th, so Emily and Zach had two gift celebrations. Later on, we began to receive a Sinterklaas box from Tante Ine, Vicki’s aunt, who lived in Amsterdam. (Tante—pronounced “tawn-tuh” is Dutch for aunt).

Tante Ine would fill the box with traditional Sinterklaas goodies: chocolate letters, speculaas biscuits, and kruidnoten, which are small round gingerbread cookies. The Sinterklaas box would also contain Dutch baking supplies such as marzipan (an almond paste) and pannenkoek (pancake) mix. The arrival of Tante Ine’s Sinterklaas box was a celebration in itself.

Holiday Season

Incorporating Dutch holiday traditions in our family isn’t just at Christmas time. Our own New Year’s Day tradition is to eat homemade Dutch pancakes—from the pannekoek mix found in the Sinterklaas box. Pannekoeken are much larger (think personal pizza-size) and thinner than their American counterpart and typically include cheese, fruits, or meats, such as ham or bacon.

While my family loves pannekoeken on New Year’s, they steadfastly refuse to eat black-eyed peas, good luck or not.

Like I said, we’re hybrid-Southerners.

I took another bite of Stroopwafel and offered some to Vicki, who took a small nibble and handed the remainder back to me. I sighed, too. Another December 5th had come and gone. Another family tradition, like waking up Christmas morning to see what Santa brought, would soon only be a memory. Emily and Zach are now grown, and someday they’ll build holiday traditions of their own.

Maybe they’ll keep pieces of their heritage and our traditions. Stroopwafels from Holland; sweet potato casserole made with apple juice, cranberries, and brown sugar; Texas Rolls (found only at SuperLo in East Memphis) to go with Thanksgiving dinner; and Sand Tart Christmas cookies from an original Pennsylvania Dutch recipe handed down from Vicki’s American grandmother.

A merger of traditions.

Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively. StoryBoard Memphis is proud to present Ken’s columns Time Capsules and Get out of Town as ongoing features here on StoryBoard.

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