Shoes to Fill
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
Yesterday, the shops in the Netherlands shut early and some 60% of Dutch people will have settled down to celebrate Sinterklaas, my friends and family included.
When I was young, my parents and other Dutch immigrant families took some of the traditions with them to Canada, and the fun and ritual became part of our family experiences in December and were hugely celebrated - much more even than Christmas on the 25th.
On the evening of the 5th, we put our shoes out in front of the fireplace, or wood stove as it was for us at the time. We would fill our shoes with a carrot and some hay for Sinterklaas’s horses, along with a list of things we would like, and sing Sinterklaas songs while doing so, then go to bed full of anticipation and excitement, hoping for the best.
In the morning, the carrot had been taken away and our shoes were full of Dutch sweets, including pepernoten (mini ginger biscuits), taai taai (chewy aniseed biscuits) and schuimpjes, comprised of sugar and artificial colourings, keeping us jittery for weeks. Together, pepernoten and schuimpjes form ‘strooigoed’ or stuff that is thrown into the room by Sint or Piet (usually by an invisible hand belonging to my mother who was hiding in the kitchen). We also received a chocolate letter - the initial of our first name - in our morning treasure trove. (One year I had a lovely chocolate 'M' given to me in honour of this Sinterklaas tradition at Freswick Castle. Unfortunately, one of our guests did not understand the significance of this custom and decided to eat it. One of my less happy Sinterklaas memories!)
Apparently, in the olden days, a disobedient child would find a potato in his/her shoe but these days this is deemed too traumatic!
Some of my family still carry on the tradition in their own ways in North America. My sister’s family in BC put their shoes out last night and they've given me a preview of what my nephews and niece will wake up to this morning:
No doubt the morning will be full of excitement.
It brings back such powerful and happy memories for me.
For pakjes avond (parcel evening) grown ups usually take part in the gift-giving by writing a rhyming poem that the recipient must read in order to guess the contents of the gift. The present can be wrapped in an unusual way to make it harder to determine what is inside. My family has taken on this tradition by bringing it into Christmas, merging the two holiday traditions (Dutch and Canadian). We pick a name in November and buy a gift for the person whose name we’ve picked, composing a poem to go along with it. Due to the fact that we are spread near and far, we will choose a date and time around Christmas when we will all meet via skype for the exchange of gifts and poems.
Lately I’ve had to alter the shoes I wear. Normally I’d often be seen wearing my wellington boots all the time at Freswick, but because of issues with my feet, I've had to change to more supportive footwear. On consideration, I’d be doing pretty well with those large wellies at the fireside this weekend, though I might have to also add quite a few carrots for a fair exchange!
When I was younger, I had a pair of the wooden Dutch shoes, similar to the shoes that some Dutch farmers still wear, though much smaller of course. I used to wear my klompen around the house and I still have them tucked away somewhere.
The traditional all-wooden Dutch clogs have been officially accredited as safety shoes and can withstand almost anything. They are actually safer than steel capped protective shoes in some circumstances, as the wood cracks rather than dents in extreme accidents, allowing easy removal of the clog.
Regardless of size or type of shoe, I wonder what shoes we leave by the fireside to fill?
Historically, Saint Nicholas was a 4th century bishop who lived in Myra, in what is now Turkey. From the 11th century onwards, news of his miracles spread around Western Europe and he became the patron saint of practically every section of society, including children. The story of how Saint Nicholas comes at night to deliver presents is based on his generosity to three prostitutes who were tossed sacks of gold for a dowry through the window under cover of night. In this way he set them free. Of course he immediately became patron saint of prostitutes too.
Big shoes to fill, but what a legacy.
In this time of pandemic and lockdowns, it is easy to get caught in our own worlds, to fret and worry, to over-consider the cost of things at our own expense, and to weigh whether or not we can afford to exert energy and effort out to others. It is tempting to protect ourselves to a point that is over protective, causing greater isolation when, really, we need to extend in whatever new ways are at our disposal.
Working from home gives us a lot more time to think about ourselves, and to over-think our circumstances. 'Look after yourself!' is the catch phrase of the day, and can be an invitation to comfort and convenience, soft cushions and good heating systems, or even in obsessing about simplifying our home or our diets. It's important to have a healthy lifestyle and take care of ourselves with plenty of exercise, for example, but it's easy to concentrate wholly on our physical well-being at the expense of our spiritual well-being. Perhaps the emphasis of 'looking to the interests of others above ourselves' needs to come back into the discussion to help weigh the balance. It's another way of saying 'Love your neighbour as you love yourself.'
I guess this is really the message of the true Sinterklaas. He took risks with his reputation and even perhaps with his life. As a child, I received so many gifts and chocolate M's from Sinterklaas, and I'm trying to think what it might be like to imitate him. What gifts can I give others, however humble, in this beautiful season?
Happy Sinterklaas to my Dutch family and all my friends around the world!
Many thanks to Charissa and Kevin Laarman for the photos of their shoes by the fireplace. x