Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Santa v Sinterklaas: How We Explain it to Our Children

For some reason this year I have seen lots of questions from expats in the Netherlands about how to get their children to wrap their heads around the whole Sinterklaas versus Santa Claus thing. And when blogger Linda (Wetcreek) posed the question on my My Love Hate Relationship with Sinterklaas post, I thought I'd share how we have handled it.

The truth is that years ago, probably five or six when my son started to get a little about what was going on with Sinterklaas, my Dutch husband and I realised that the cultural clash we had when it came to the festive season actually mattered for our children.

My husband grew up celebrating Sinterklaas on the 5th December, and I grew up in complete British oblivion where 5 December was just another winter day. Until he met me, he had never had a present on Christmas Day. My Dutch in-laws changed the rules during my first Christmas in the Netherlands and there were presents under the tree - but for all of them it was a completely new concept that gifts were exchanged on the 25th December. Prior to my arrival Christmas was about a family meal.

So, from the start of our relationship it was clear that we had two very different experiences of Christmas - a Dutch celebration at the beginning of December which was alien to me, and meant nothing to me and a Christmas Day that was a much bigger affair for me than it ever was for my husband.

So I adapted, I embraced pakjesavond for my children (let's face it, if you have Dutch children there is no other way to approach 5 December) and we go completely Dutch.(This year I actually got to sit on Sinterklaas' lap - which may be taking the 'embracing' a little far - what do you think?) My husband led the way for a few years until I got the hang of it (the rules are there are no rules) and now I feel pretty confident that I could run the Sinterklaas show if I had to.

However, when it comes to Christmas, we do it British style. We hang stockings on our doors on Christmas Eve, and Father Christmas fills our stockings with little gifts and leaves presents for us under our Christmas tree.

Christmas is a bigger affair than Sinterklaas when it comes to presents, and the children know that Father Christmas will visit in a matter of weeks after pakjesavond. I guess we are lucky because so far I have never heard my children comparing their gift list to their friends - and I am pretty sure they do not feel hard done by on the 5th December. Better still, when my eldest laid in bed on the evening of the 5th December this year he uttered, "It's a shame pakjesavond is over." Then his eyes lit up, and he said, "But we have a visit from Father Christmas to look forward to!"

How do we explain it? Well, I'm British. My children are half Dutch, half British. Father Christmas comes to us (and not to other Dutch children) because my sons are half British. If anyone asks them about Christmas my sons happily reel off,

"Father Christmas comes to us because my mama is British." 

When my eldest was younger he asked if Sinterklaas knew Father Christmas, and we told him they are friends and colleagues. They share information about what children have been up to during the year - they help each other. He was happy with that. Two different figures, two different occasions.

End of Christmas story. I hope it's as easy for you..........

How do you explain cultural differences to your children during this festive period?


  1. Great blogpost (as usual )! Your Dutch family is far more adaptable than mine from 35 years ago. Maybe that was for the best. At least the gift-giving (aka shopping) has been reduced significantly over the years. Our grown son is the gifter at Christmas time, and we still have a delicious Christmas dinner. Amanda, thanks for the link to my Wetcreek blog. Hope you have had a chance to read some of my Love Letters from The Netherlands that I wrote to my American parents 35 years ago. It has been fun sharing them. Hugs, Linda@Wetcreek Blog

  2. Great story. I'm in the same situation because my wife is Dutch and I'm British. She'd never celebrated Christmas with gifts and I knew nothing about Sinterklaas. Now we celebrate both. Since we now have a two year old daughter I might have to start using your Father Christmas/Sinterklaas explanation in a few years.