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Typical NL: This old man arriving by boat

Every year it’s the same procedure, and I assume it’s the same in every country. The weeks preceding Christmas are dominated on the one hand by preparations for the big festivity, and on the other by critical voices complaining that Christmas has allegedly lost its true meaning and is now dominated by purely commercial interests. “The shopkeepers are starting to sell their Christmas sweets earlier and earlier; they just want us to consume, consume, consume.”

I don’t know whether that’s true. Maybe it is, but in a way it also bears resemblance to the age-old complaint that the current generation of young people is much worse than the previous generation. Granted, I don’t want to buy Christmas candy as early as October, but then again, no one forces me to buy it, so why bother? The only thing that truly gets on my nerves are the counters on websites like Ebay.com: “Only so many days left until Christmas!” I don’t want to know! Not because I don’t like Christmas, but because I don’t want to be reminded how time flies.

In the Netherlands, it’s a bit different. If you strolled along the Maas on Saturday 13 November, you might have witnessed a most peculiar incident. A Father Christmas-like figure, accompanied by some children, their faces painted black, arrived by boat, was greeted by the mayor and many other children, and made his way through the city. Now, isn’t that a bit over the top, six weeks before Christmas?

Well, things are different in the Netherlands. The figure was not Father Christmas, but Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas). In the Netherlands, his day, 5 December, is a more important celebration than Christmas – and it’s also the day when children get their gifts. The relative importance of the two events used to fluctuate in recent years, with Christmas growing more prominent in the Netherlands as well, but more and more Dutch people became irritated by that, not wanting to let go of their unique tradition. So Sinterklaas once again has the upper hand.

This causes considerable confusion among international students, not only because of the early celebration, but also because it’s difficult to adapt to the Dutch priorities. If you’re unlucky, you might still have to take exams as late as 23 or 24 December – which is especially annoying if you want to spend Christmas at home and have a long distance to travel. But look on the bright side: if you have to focus on your exams, you’ll have other things on your mind than “Christmas starting too early”. 

 

Tim Aretz

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