Sinterklaas Got Dirty on Christmas Day

SINTERKLAAS VS SANTA CLAUS

The 25th day of December is what Christians around the world is waiting for. However, the Dutch are also looking forward to the 5th day of the month to celebrating Sinterklaasfeest or St. Nicholas Day. St. Nicholas (Sint Nicolaas) was originally a patron saint of children and sailors who liked placing presents secretly in one’s shoes.

Sinterklaas vs Santa Claus
pic credit: http://www.nlchamber.cz/kalendar-sinterklaas-in-brno.html, http://danspapers.com/2012/11/sag-harbor-will-host-santa-claus-today/

Although Sinterklaas and Santa Claus are old, have full white beard, wear red outfit, and deliver presents only for nice children, they still have some other characteristics not in common. Sinterklaas rides a horse named Amerigo, not a sleigh pulled by Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer and his pack. He has less fat on his tummy than Santa Claus, doesn’t live in North Pole, is assisted by his humble servants called Zwarte Piet (curly-haired man who’s got dark skin from chimney ashes), wears a Pope-styled red mitre and holds a golden walking stick with decorative curl shape on top.

Another important fact about Sinterklaas: he becomes the foundation of American Santa Claus character.

SINTERKLAAS IS COMING TO THE OFFICE

Basically, Sinterklaasfeest is about present giveaways for (good) children, just like Santa Claus. However, nowadays some corporations in The Netherlands regard Sinterklaas as an alternative Christmas gathering besides a Christmas dinner. Therefore, the celebration is not limited for children and no worries, no bad-behaved children or mankind are taken to Spain in Sinterklaas’ sack.

What differs Sinterklaas celebration from any regular Christmas party is the rituals related to exchanging presents that takes some efforts. Oh well, if you associate the effort with creativity, it becomes a seriously fun thing to do.

Honestly, I’m not traveling anywhere nor do anything special this Christmas, but I recall unique traditions and wonderful moments of Sinterklaas event for the first time in an office in The Netherlands back in year 2005.

1. Lottery 

First thing first, all of us had to pick a random lottery, a jar containing small pieces of paper rolled with a recipient’s name written in it, to define to whom we had to give the present.

lucky-draw
http://thesabahsociety.com/jubilee/news/lucky-draw-prizes-update/

2. Be creative with the present

Anything significant about him or her? Is she afraid of spiders? Is he a devoted yogi? The chosen present must reflect a recipient’s personality, together with a poem or surprise in Dutch and the packaging. The latter must be presented as humorous as possible in a good way. Don’t surprise an arachnophobia by putting spiders inside a gift box, that’s nasty and mean. But nothing’s too serious either, otherwise it’s not fun any longer.

The lottery said that my present would go to Herman, the big boss who is (unfortunately) discreet about his personal life. I had no idea about his favourite drinks, TV shows or else, neither did my colleagues. All I know was that he’s quarter-Indonesian (if not half) and a family man.

Food was the only thing I could think of as a present if no great ideas running to my mind. Thus, I decided to give something physically cute and sweet taste I saw everyday in grocery stores during Christmas time, marzipan, regardless he would like it or not. Then, I created a giant De Ruyter packaging, a famous Dutch hagelslaag or chocolate sprinkle brand, to enclose the gift. Plus, to spice things up, I added marshmallows, chocolate syrup and shredded newspapers inside the giant box.

FYI, the Dutch introduced their traditional delicacies, including chocolate sprinkle, to Indonesian people during the 350-year-conquest in Indonesia. So, I believe historical connection between Dutch and Indonesian, represented with hageslaag, symbolized Herman’s origin. Sounds conceptual or simply out of a line? Whatever. Plus, to spice things up, I added marshmallows, chocolate syrup and shredded newspapers inside the gift.

make a mess and loving it!

What I did next:

  • Wrap the marzipan package with newspaper.
  • Mix marshmallows and shredded newspapers (an instant solution to save money on marshmallows) with chocolate syrup in a bowl.
  • Place the present inside a cereal box, then pour chocolate-stained marshmallows and shredded newspapers on top.
  • Close the cereal box and wrap it with a drawing paper.
  • Draw De Ruyter packaging design on the drawing paper with coloured pencil.
  • Make a poem. Gosh, I’m just not good at it! I totally forget what I wrote back then.
the famous Dutch chocolate sprinkle
http://www.littledutchgirl.com/images/3986.jpg
my drawing of De Ruyter chocolate sprikle box

3. Place one side of a boot in front of the fireplace beside the entrance door.

The day before, we left one side of our boots near the office entrance door. So Sinterklaas could put the present next morning, an alphabet chocolate bar according to the first name of the owner, in the boot.

one side of a boot will do, as you only get a bar, not two

4. D-Day

We were all more cheerful than ever despite the tight deadline. The day began with eating an alphabet chocolate from Sinterklaas and kruidnootjestiny rounded-shaped spice biscuits, from Zwarte Piet our secretary. A simple yet traditional lunch at noon, kerstol met amandespijs, sweet bread with almond paste, and Old Amsterdam’s oude kaas or old cheese, signified that the most anticipated moment was just a few hours more to come.

Et voilà! At 5 pm, Sinterklaas entered the office carrying his sack of presents. Surprisingly, without Zwarte Piet!

Thanks to my colleagues who captured these special moments, I am able to show it to you all. Check out if the presents truly represent recipients’ personality…..

A cat lover wearing Dutch klompen

An egg eater reading poetry

The other big boss is trying to give up on smoking

Now a bug hater can use scissors to slay any bugs

What’s inside the balloons? Mouse, fleas and other bug members!

Guess who was the man behind the Sinterklaas suit? Herman himself, to whom I delivered the present! I couldn’t be happier to see Dutch Santa rolled his sleeve to dig dirty marshmallows and shredded paper inside the giant De Ruyter box with bare hands to reach the present, without any help from Zwarte Piet.

Aha! Gigantic hagelslaag?

See the chocolate stain in his arm and gift?

Tah….. Dah…..fruity marzipan!

Time flew fast with lots of laughter and happiness regardless what we got from Santa. It might not be a feast with fine dining experience in a fancy restaurant, yet Sinterklaasfeest brought us together in particular way, more than just small talk to everyone in the beginning that ends up with an isolation of several people with common interest for more specific conversation while zipping a glass of wine.

It was time to unmask seniority and superiority in hierarchical environment for once and for all. On top of it, it really put us to the test how well we know our own colleagues or boss(es) in person after some time, that could sometimes be the hardest job of all. Indeed, some of us failed to do so, especially me, and realize it after the feast. Mingle more, folks, and build better human relationship out of it….

Merry Christmas, everyone! May joy and kindness be with you!

 

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Koninginnedag Amsterdam Remembered

I’m just about to start finishing the last sequel of Penang post. But before I know it, it’s already a countdown to April 30 when this post was written. I guess I need to put it off and switch my subject related to April 30 for now. What’s so special about it anyway? No worries, the answer won’t be my birthday 😉

Every year on April 30 is koninginnedag (queen’s day) in The Netherlands to celebrate their queen’s birthday. April 30 refers to Queen Juliana‘s birthday, the mother of Queen Beatrix. Although she passed away in 2004 and her daughter now reigns the country, the date of koninginnedag remains unchanged. It is probably the most joyful day for Dutch people in 365 days apart from spring, summer, winter and Christmas holidays.

I joined the crowds for 6 consecutive years in Amsterdam with a group of friends until I left in 2009. I have to thank my friend who captured these wonderful pictures. I borrowed his camera to snap my favourite objects, too. Even though I wasn’t there this year, I believe these pictures taken between 2002 and 2009 still represent the Dutch tradition of celebrating the national festive holiday until now.

ORANJEGEKTE PEDESTRIANS 

Main streets for public transportation are strictly for pedestrians, especially for koninginnedag. Therefore, trams and buses have to use alternative routes and adjust their schedule. Metro (subway) is more effective to reach distant locations, but walking is the best way to enjoy koninginnedag. It is interesting to be on street, mingling with oranjegekte – the crowds wearing orange t-shirts, hats, scarves and jackets. Also, find some more orange colour on their hair, face and body. Or Dutch flag colour (red-white-blue) on cheeks and foreheads. Residents decorate buildings with orange – the Royal Dutch colour – attributes. Schools, offices, department stores, boutiques are closed.

FLEA MARKETS RULE!

Flea markets rule on every corner and main street in Amsterdam, whose vendors are ordinary people in the neighborhood from children, adolescents, adults to senior people. So forget about shopping at Zara, G-Star or Diesel on that day – they are closed. Weeks before queen’s day, participants need to make a reservation to get the spot to spread their carpets, build a tent or stall. Exclusively on queen’s day, reservations are free and government does not collect taxes from sales income. They sell used personal belongings they want to get rid of. Basically, it’s just the way to participate this special occasion for fun. Earning some euros is a plus.

The golden rule for shopping on koninginnedag: cheap second hand goods. Plus high quality or branded equals to perfect. Take your time to walk browsing each stall, including those on the alleys. Surprises are coming to your way.

My favourite “hunting field” was near the border of Amsterdam – Amstelveen, whose inhabitants are high-paid expatriates, mainly Japanese and upper class local people. Frankly speaking, Japanese “trashes” (read: used belongings) are the best so far. Their goods are too good to tosh in trash, some are even in nearly perfect condition. They sell unique things, such as original merchandise from Japanese airline companies, ANA and JAL (I believe they actually got them for free), Japanese comics, magazines, anime toys, posters and dolls. Take tram 5 or metro 51 to get there, stop at AJ. Ernststraat station, and walk a bit further to the left side.

My other favourite “hunting field” was antiquities somewhere at Beethovenstraat. In reality, I never purchased anything from there since my apartment was too small. Decorating a place with old stuff without a proper plan means collecting trashes. Moreover, I was a foreigner who never knew where destiny would take me after graduation. Having experience with antiquities is an advantage when it comes to value and originality. I have a fond of them, minus the expertise. The same tram 5 take you there, stop at Beethovenstraat. Suppose there is no tram, just follow tram 5 railway on foot instead.

My best second hand deals from various locations: Miss 60 mini skirt (€5), Morgan camisole (€2), Disney Babies baby clothing for my nephew (€15), Pikachu (of Pokémon) handkerchief (€0.70), fluffy anime key chains and dolls (€0.10 – €0.50), Nijntje (Miffy) toilet seat cover (€5).

Shopping on queen’s day seems very cheap, but it might end up with bringing other people’s trashes you don’t need. And what if you get snacks and drinks from one stall to another? You’ll be surprised how much you spend in one day. €100 or more? Could be! I tried my best to reduce impulsive buying behaviour to save money.

Nonetheless, not all flea markets sell second hand goods. Quite a lot of vendors offer factory outlet garments, branded good fractions, low end electronic gadgets etc. I call these people “the opportunists” and most of them are immigrants from Turkey, Morocco, Eastern European countries to name a few. Besides, some souvenir shops – especially in Damrak – and independent retailers selling special priced queen’s day related items, from clothing, accessories to non-permanent paints.

MERCHANDISE GIVEAWAY

Join the crowds earlier before streets are too packed with people. Nice stuffs from flea markets are easier to get before noon as well as free merchandise from huge corporations along the way. I got an orange balloon crown from Staatsloterij, a Dutch lottery company, that came with a lottery number I could send to the head office for free. But damn, I didn’t win it ;(

Others got lion paw-shaped sandals from ING, “mad hatter” style hat from Heineken and many more. None of them was precious, indeed. Generally, the crowds love the idea of getting stuffs for free, although within a couple of hours they might dump them on street or garbage bin. I like collecting things, so I still keep the one I didn’t blow at home.

However, in the end, it depends on your luck.

Somebody climbed the pillar to reach the queen’s head at Vondelpark. She was wearing Staatloterij’s balloon crown.

STREET FOOD AND BEVERAGES

Apart from selling second hand goods, residents open stalls selling various kinds of food and drinks. Amsterdam is a multicultural city, street food is not limited to only Dutch food. Chinese spring rolls, dumplings, rice box, Dutch poffertjes, Indonesian loempia’s, fried noodles, German bradwurst, Spanish churros and Turkish kebab. Here, earning euros is mandatory if not just a plus.

Restaurants, cafes, bars in the city centre usually operate to boost their sales. In fact, many restaurants even purposely build stalls outside their outlets selling special set menus to attract floods of passing crowds. Big supermarket chains like Albert Heijn in touristic areas are open. I prefer buying drinks from supermarkets because they are cheaper than stalls. Opening beverage stalls on queen’s day is usually profitable. Vendors can charge you double when drinks are served cold.

PERFORMING ART

Non-famous musicians try to promote their albums by having live concert on street while displaying CDs or DVDs to sell; music school students put their skill to the test by playing music instruments; residents practice singing and dancing skills in public; amateur DJs and bands entertain crowds voluntarily; amateur gymnasts demonstrate acrobatic movements; unknown street actors do pantomime; etc. Koninginnedag is the right moment to show performing art capabilities. A lot of them put a glass or a can beside them to get some tips, except amateur DJs and bands on stage.

Muziek, dans, biertje! Keep the party rocking!

At Teasers Amsterdam, all the girls do not only become oranjegekte and dance on the table inside the bar, but also entertain crowds outside.

All nationalities participate on queen’s day, including Indian musicians. I think I had seen these guys more than once…

Dutch bands and singers are in concert in Museumplein free of charge for public. It usually starts after lunch, but I preferred coming after 5 pm since the A-Lists show up later. As the old saying, save the best for last.

Strike a pose with trashes in Museumplein

After the concert, trashes are beyond imagination. Same story for other areas in Amsterdam. For certain people, it’s a blessing in disguise for extra money. The government needs more street sweepers to clean the city back to normal overnight.

GAMES AND KERMIS

Besides selling food and second hand goods, residents create games where everyone can join. It requires a small amount of money to join. The games tend to be simple and low cost.

Throw the white helmet guy with eggs and get the reward

I don’t know who organized bungee jumping at that time, but I believe a corporate provided this game since it should be handled by professionals and safety is the biggest concern of all.

Kermis at Dam Square

Unlike other games held by individuals or corporate, kermis is not held solely on queen’s day. Amsterdam has it four times a year regardless the nation’s public holiday. Kermis is derived from two Dutch words: kerk (church) and mis (mass). It was originally a market to celebrate a patron saint consecration day. Nowadays, people from big cities neglect the religious meaning of the event. Nonetheless, the fun stays forever. Merry-go-round, haunted house, roller coaster, sling shot, bumper car, you name it. Taste assorted peanut and pop corn flavours, suikerspin, bradwurst, vlaamse frites, oliebollen, waffles after the rides.

CANAL BOAT TRIP

How about fun ride along Amsterdam canals that stretch for hundreds of kilometers by boat? Otherwise, just watch oranjegekte in action instead.

URINARY ODOUR

The most inconvenient part of queen’s day is the toilet. The picture shown above is the most common and practical portable toilet available in Amsterdam as it doesn’t waste a lot of space. However, I really despise it because only men can use it and the smell is OMG hell on earth!!! Urinary smell contaminates fresh air since it has no door and you cannot flush it!!! Portable cabin toilets with a door and a flusher are mostly found in the outdoor music concert in Museumplein.

The queue is freaking horrible. Some guys who can’t hold it any longer either pee-pee on the grass, behind the bushes or even on corners of the street. Toilet rates at Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s and Burger King increase, sometimes double, every queen’s day and the queue is also like hell. But at least a bit cleaner than the open air portable toilets. Many restaurants’ toilets are suddenly unavailable for a day with the announcement “GEEN WC” or “NO TOILETS”. It is so understandable why they do that for the sake of their customers’ convenience.

Amsterdam Centrum was my daily dose, I passed same routes everyday to go to work and school. I remembered main toilet locations and rates, including the free of charge ones. My favourite toilet spots on queen’s day were Pathé de Munt Cinema and NH Grand Krasnapolsky Hotel in Damrak because they were free all year long. I pretended as a Chinese or Japanese hotel guest at Krasnapolsky, hanging a camera on my neck, and sneaked into the toilet immediately. A few McDonald’s flagships had free toilets at that time, except on queen’s day. Anyways, when nature called and things were inevitable, I directly went to nearest toilet regardless the rate.

EPILOQUE: LAST BUT NOT LEAST….

Every year on koninginnedag, I spotted a lot of ducks with their new family members (read: cubs), including in the river in front of my apartment. Was it just a coincidence?

I found the mommy duck and her cubs in their nest somewhere on the side of Amsterdam canal. Littering in their nest is the sign of ignorance of other living creatures living side by side with human beings.

So, my dear friends. Several things to remember: beware of pickpockets, hold your breath when necessary, spend your money wisely, don’t get drunk and ruin other people’s happiness, check tram and metro schedules and please litter in provided garbage bin when available.

Enjoy queen’s day responsibly. Lang leve de koningin! Long live the queen!