How easy to live abroad an be politically correct when it comes to the Dutch Sinterklaas, or rather 'Black Pete' discussion. This year, however, I find myself at the front line of the 'Sinterklaas war', which makes me feel surprisingly emotional.
Not because I do not want to change the tradition. No, I am all for changing the look of 'Black Pete' and make him into a colourful pink, green, purple, fair haired, dark haired or ginger Pete. I don't think children will notice and it certainly won't take anything away from what is in its core a fun and festive tradition, geared towards young children.
What I do find difficult, however, is a small group of international parents in the Dutch International School I work for, who really do not like our school to celebrate Sinterklaas (in whatever shape or form). Their arguments being that they are not Dutch, nor will they ever become Dutch and they sent their children to an international school to give them a broad and open-minded view of the world in which there is no place for the internationally criticised figure of 'Black Pete'.
That I find tricky to deal with. My children (now 13 and 11) have celebrated many traditions in the different countries they have lived in. In Italy for instance they have enthusiastically celebrated 'Carnevale', dressed up for it, sung the traditional 'Carnevale' songs and eaten the fried sugary snacks that come with it with gusto.
In Italy they have also learned to celebrate 'La Befana', a witch, generally portrayed riding a broomstick and always covered in soot, because of her habit of entering children's houses through the chimney. La Befana brings Italian children presents on Epiphany (6th of January).
While living in Switzerland my children have come upclose and personal with Samichlaus and his rather sinister tramp-like helper Schmutzli, who is believed to stick naughty children in his bag and kidnap them. The pair of them by the way also hand out presents of course, this time on the 6th of December.
Learning and getting involved with the culture of your host country always is part of the curriculum of any international school. Teaching primary school children in a Dutch International School this means you will always talk to them about King's Day (Koningsdag) and teach them how to ride a bike. I have never been more proud than when a group of our older primary students passed their cycling exam (Nationaal Verkeersexamen). And yes it also means, as a school, you will celebrate Sinterklaas.
I love Sinterklaas and all that it entails. The fact that as a child you can put your shoe out overnight and find it filled with sweets or small gifts the next morning (I would invariably wake up around four am). The funny poems adults write each other to accompany their presents. The excitement as a child to go watch Sinterklaas sailing in from Spain, safely seated onto your father's shoulders.
Although I have always loved Sinterklaas, when my children were the perfect Sinterklaas age we happened to live in England, where Mr. S. and myself took the executive decision to celebrate Christmas, rather than Sinterklaas. We simply weren't clever enough to explain to our then 3 and 4yo children, that father Christmas would fly in from Lapland on his present laden reindeer pulled sleigh to shower each and every child in England with presents, except for our two.
One of my fondest memories though, is the huge Sinterklaas party the children and I organised in England, where we invited lots of our friends over for a Dutch celebration. I explained a little bit about the tradition and all the little and bigger guests got a chocolate letter in their shoe. I even convinced my elderly neighbour to knock on the door and throw pepernoten (traditional cinnamon Sinterklaas delicacies) inside to the utter delight of the mob of young visitors.
Thinking about it still brings a smile to my face. I found myself grinning from ear to ear again last Friday when a group of mums from all over the world came together to wrap tons of fake presents to decorate the school. The looks on the children's faced when the entered the school this morning was priceless. And they will again be thrilled when Sinterklaas and his rainbow coloured helpers visit the school on the 5th of December. And that really is all that it should be about. Excited children, happy memories.