Christmas Memories

We pause in our search for key leadership and management insights. Here is an experience from my very younger days that I thought might bring a perspective on Christmas from a cultural point of view.

Enjoy and truly, Merry Christmas.

Our reality, perception of the world is impacted by our family, our home culture, and our world view.

Soon after WWII my father took us to The Netherlands as he did his research for his Doctoral Dissertation. My mother, father and I left in August, sailed on the Queen Elizabeth to England, and then a smaller ‘channel” boat to The Netherlands.

We settled for that year in Zeist, a nice town north of Utrecht. Evidence of the war was still visible and omnipresent from the yet to be rebuilt bombed buildings to the last of staples like sugar and meat.

I learned many “life” and cross cultural lessons in that year, not the least of which was a different reality of Christmas.

Here is the story:

Christmas Memories from ZeistPerhaps the biggest shock to a young boy interfacing with a different culture for the first time, was the realization that Santa Claus did not come to the Dutch.

This was a major disappointment as two key life events were going missing.

As nearly as I could figure out, Santa Claus was a skinny guy called St. Nicholas, there were no gifts on December 25, and of all things he rode on a white horse, had a helper named Zwarte Pete, and they fed the horse carrots.

Not only that, but he showed up “early”, December 5 to be exact.

Very disconcerting, disconcerting indeed.

Christmas was apparently when everyone went to church; December 6 held more promise for a 7 year old. 

Here’s the deal, December5th- 6th, in The Netherlands, commemorates the life of St. Nicholas. His popularity among children is understandable in that he was, is, the key Saint associated with gift giving. As this was all being explained to me in September by my mother, my spirits lifted and life seemed a little brighter.Gifts on the horizon, and even early.

However, just to confuse the matter a little more, the kids called St. Nicholas  Sinterklaas, which was alright with me as long as he did not forget either me or the gifts. 

According to the St. Nicholas Center, the official source of all St. Nicholas truth, here is the full story:

"In mid-November Dutch television broadcasts the official entry into the Netherlands of St. Nicholas and his helper Zwarte Piet live to the nation. Coming by steamer from Spain, each year they dock in the harbor of a different city or village. Wearing traditional bishop's robes, Sinterklaas rides into town on a white horse to be greeted by the mayor. A motorcade and a brass band begin a great parade which leads Sinterklaas and his Piets through the town.

Nearly every city, town and village has its own Sinterklaas parade. He usually arrives by horseback, but occaisionally he comes by boat, carriage, moped, or helicopter.

In the following weeks before St. Nicholas Day, December 6, Sinterklaas goes about the country to determine if the children have been well-behaved. He and his Zwarte Piet helpers visit children in schools, hospitals, department stores, and even at home. Bakeries are busy making speculaas, molded spice cookies, for the season.

During this time children sing Sinterklaas songs and put their shoes next to the window or door, or, by the fireplace or heater, along with a nice drawing, a wish-list and a carrot or hay, and maybe a saucer ofChristmas Memories from Zeist water, for the horse. If St. Nicholas happens by while checking on their behavior, the next morning children may find chocolate coins or initial letter, candy treats, pepernoten, and little gifts in their shoes. Everyone hopes for sweets, not coal or a little bag of salt. In some families he may stop by every night, but usually just once or several times—and not if the children have been naughty that day or forgot to sing their songs!"

To conclude the story, at least for the moment, my parents purchased St. Nicholas robes and a Zwarte Pete outfit and brought it back the US when we returned the next year.

The following December 6 found a friend of my parents dressed as St. Nicholas and yes, you guessed it, I was the helper Zwarte Pete, renaissance knickers and white leggings too. It was a little traumatic, although some gifts showed up then too. As we were back in the States, the traditional Christmas festivities resumed. 

Now, much, much later, Christmas has a more important, and spiritual impact.

I still love the gift giving and receiving, however I prioritize the Gift of Jesus. A gift truly for all the world. It is the beginning of the critical step in God’s redemptive plan for a fallen world. It starts at Christmas, takes a significant step at Easter, takes form with His ascension, and is carried out in us through the caring work of the Holy Spirit.

Have a blessed Christmas…look up, look out, and act accordingly.

Bruce