A 4 Months Update
We have reached the 4 months mark and here in Maastricht the holidays are in full force. Starting in October you can see lights and decorations popping up around the city. It may seem early, but in Dutch traditions, there is no Thanksgiving, Sinterklaas arrives to the Netherlands in mid-late November (visiting several cities), and Sinterklaus gift-giving day is usually celebrated December 5th/6th.
As Americans, we are very aware that Thanksgiving is this Thursday. Normally, back home, we host our family members at our home. We run a Thanksgiving Day 5K (last year we did it in our own neighborhood), pop champagne, and start an all day cooking, eating, and general hanging out with our loved ones. Here in the Netherlands the boys will still have school and our “family” (Aunti Melissa and Flo) are traveling in the USA, so it will be a small affair on Heugemerweg. Lucky for us, we have friends helping us score some “American” goodies from the NATO base to help it feel a little more like Thanksgiving here.
A little over a week ago, Sinterklaas arrived in Maastricht. He comes first by boat and then rides around the city where people line up to sing to him and sometimes receive candy from his helpers, the Piets. You mostly see the youngest of children out for this affair, but being that we’ve never experienced it and had no idea what it would be like, we drug our kids out of the cozy house and into the rainy cold morning in the effort to witness “something very Dutch”. It is very festive, kids (and some parents) are in costumes, everyone is singing – it is a nice way to feel the holidays. The Dutch also have a controversial history of painting their faces black, as their version of Santa’s helper is Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). This is a rabbit hole I’m not going too far down on this post, but the Dutch emotions are strong on this. Much of the Netherlands has phased out and even prohibited the painting of faces black but the custom still hangs on, primarily in southern cities. Many times you see a compromise – a sooted Piet, if you will, with the explanation that he’s sooty from the fireplace. At any rate, seeing, reading, and learning about all this has been really interesting!
Here’s where I continue to be confused on the Sinterklaas thing and why it is complicated for the non-Dutch. According to tradition, on the evening of December 5th children put out their shoe, ideally with a carrot for Sinterklaus’s horse, and in return they receive a gift. Sometimes gifts are exchanged that evening of the 5th or in the morning of the 6th. On top of this, we are hearing of some families doing the shoe/small gift thing every morning from when Sinterklaas arrives in your town (for us Nov 14th) until December 5/6! That’s a long time! I heard this was only very recent and less common, but was just informed by Caleb that his friend Olivia is getting something every morning, to which I responded “hmmm…she must’ve been a very good kid this year.”
Since the rest of Maastricht is in full Sinterklaas mode, we have, maybe for the first time ever, already bought and put up our Christmas tree and begun decorating the house prior to Thanksgiving. There’s one store called Intratuin where the entire place currently looks like Santa’s workshop. We were able to get most of our decorations there and spent so much time just looking at their train villages. We’ve even begun mailing out Christmas cards in the hope they actually arrive to loved ones somewhat on time.
Our plans are to observe the Sinterklaas day as well as our traditional Christmas Eve/Christmas Day celebrations. I already think this whole Sinterklaas thing is a little confusing to our boys so I have no idea what they’re going to be believing by the time we return!
In the upcoming weeks we hope to visit a few of the nearby Christmas markets, which Europe – especially Germany and Austria are famous for. There are some in Maastricht, Aachen, Valkenburg, and Trier that we have on our radar. We also have plans to visit some good American friends in Hamburg during the boys’ winter break (starting mid December), but everything feels tentative these days because as the holiday season is ramping up, so are the Covid cases in much of Europe. In the Netherlands somewhere between 85-90% of those eligible for the vaccine (ages 12-up) are vaccinated. But the 10-15% of the pretty dense Netherlands population is still a big number, combined with the kids who can not yet be vaccinated, and the virus is still spreading. Vaccines started later in general here and booster shots are only just now getting underway. The European Medicines Agency is still reviewing the Pfizer studies for ages 5 and up and it looks like it will be some time in December before we see an approval (which then each country also has to approve for themselves). And yes, we’ve totally thought about trying to go back to the US for the vaccine. It isn’t off the table, but we have no plans to as of yet.
Due to all of this, you’ve likely seen headlines about countries like Austria going back on full lockdown. They tried to initially put the burden on the unvaccinated, but now have gone into full lockdown. Austria also has some of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe. Here in the Netherlands, there are what I call “lockdown light” restrictions. Masks are required indoors again. Bars/cafes/many stores require vaccine proof or recent negative test results and must close by 8. You can’t spectate sporting events. The Dutch are insistent the kids still be able to go to school (with very few to no restrictions on the young kids), so I think virtual schooling will be a very last resort here.
I don’t know that it will change much, but I just hope the situation doesn’t get much worse. I’m a hopeless pessimistic optimist. I find myself in the news-reading spiral similar to last year…kind of holding my breath for the next headline or press conference on what is happening. Here’s hoping Sinterklaas brings better news our way! Or enough Glühwein to get us through it.