Somewhere in my family tree, back about 17 generations or so, there’s Dutch blood. I never really felt like anything more than an American mutt until my first trip to the Netherlands and then, wow, did it hit me. It wasn’t necessarily that I looked like these people (though natives did keep stopping me for directions) but there was this vibe. You know that vibe? It’s that thing you feel when you walk into a strange, new location and the first word that comes to mind is home. Not like the comfort of the home you grew up in but something deeper, something in the bones. The DNA is singing to you.
In the Netherlands the holiday season is a bit different. First, they don’t celebrate the arrival of some mythical elf flying around with magical deer but an actual person, a Saint named Nicholas. Over the years it’s been shortened a bit, ruined by language, and you get both St. Nick and Sinterklass. He dresses like a bishop and rides a modern steam ship through the canals of Amsterdam. The patron saint of children. I never really got into the Santa thing as a kid, but this Sinterklass I could get into.
I’m going to be partially biased about liking this tradition due to the fact that the Dutch equivalent of Christmas Eve is on my birthday, December 5th. After decades of having a “lighter” birthday because it was so close to Christmas (or worse, the dreaded “we’ll make Christmas twice as big” when the birthday was skipped) I think I’d rather have my birthday on this Sinterklassavond.
Because for adults it is about poems as much as it is about gifts.
See, the usual stuff for kids is the gifts left behind by Sinterklass and his assistant, a strange blackface character named Swarte Piet (or Black Peter, I kid you not), but for the adults the gifts are elaborately wrapped and accompanied by a poem. The tradition is that the poem is personally written – not some mass-created Hallmark moment – either about the recipient or about the gift itself. I think it’s great tradition and something I have wanted to incorporate into my own life but somehow can never get it together.
All of this to say that I was curious to see what, exactly, these poems looked like. What are these Sinterklaasgedichten that the Dutch write to one another? It sort of boggles the mind to think there is a national celebration that includes people writing and sharing poems with one another. What is wrong with America, why don’t we do things like this? We have birthdays and Valentine’s Day and any number of other special occasions and not one of them includes a national tradition that incorporates poetry.
Curious, I stumbled upon a site on the web designed to help the poetry impaired with their Sinterklaasgedichten. They had a number of ready-made poems based on gift items and on personalities, which in and of themselves were amusing. A poem for aftershave, and another for socks, and one for “horse stuff.” And on the personality side there was “for a waitress” and “for a lazy student” and “for a father with a mobile phone.” Best part of all, thanks to the imperfection of various internet filters, are the English translations of some of these poems. Such as…
Een nieuw jaar, een nieuw begin
Hoe vul jij dat straks in?
Is het hard werken tot je pensioen?
Of heb je ruimte om iets leuks te doen?
Een weekendje weg, een avondje uit.
Je maakt een afspraak, neemt een besluit.
Een cursus of een vergadering
je weet het bij benadering,
maar welke dag was ‘t ook weer?
Zet het in deze agenda neer
zodat je niets meer vergeet
en niet te laat komt op je date!
(A new year, a new beginning.
How do you fill it later?
Is it hard work until you retire?
Or do you have room for something fun to do?
A weekend getaway, a night out.
You make an appointment, take a decision.
A course or a meeting
you know the approximate
but what day was it again?
Put it down on this calendar
so you should not forget
and not too late for your date!)
You know what? It’s not a great poem, and it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to be honest, and heartfelt, and personal. The Low Countries aren’t unnaturally populated by a race of poets, they’re populated with people who value the thought that a personal poem is an appropriate form of expression for a national holiday.
Poetry Friday is over at Wild Rose Reader this week.