It’s almost Christmas, and I’ve been thinking a lot this year about the holiday as an event. Perhaps because I was much less busy this year than in previous years leading up to it, I’ve been noticing more.
Note added at Christmas 2020: While I wrote this back in 2015, these observations still apply … except for this year, when nothing is normal.
I was born in the US and lived there until I was 35, minus the two years I spent in Malawi in the Peace Corps. I’ve lived here in the Netherlands for more than 18 years. The two countries feel very different at this time of year.
Christmas in America
In the US, Christmas marketing starts well before Halloween, but goes into full gear just after. That means all of November and December are dedicated to urging Americans to buy stuff: as much stuff as possible. The fact that Black Friday even exists is an example of this. If people didn’t go out en masse to shop the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday wouldn’t happen.
Added in 2020: I recognize that in the last few years this has gotten somewhat better, with people shopping Black Friday deals online instead of facing the in-store riots.
At the same time, it’s not all about consumerism. For many it’s a religious occasion as well, yet that meaning gets lost in all the clamor.
Even for those who don’t believe (and for the Jews and Muslims and other religious adherents in America), a certain spirit is noticeable among the tinsel and piped Christmas carols. People give more to charities at this time of year. They collect food for the poor or hold fundraisers for various causes. Maybe it’s the tinsel and piped music that makes people more amenable to giving. Maybe it’s something deeper than that. I don’t know.
Americans say that it’s all too much of the commercialism and not enough of the kindness. Yet every year it happens again. By the time Christmas arrives, people are fed up with carols, they’ve gained weight from all the sweets, and they’re really looking forward to taking down the Christmas tree and getting back to normal.
Christmas in the Netherlands
Things are going the same way here as well.
When I first arrived, 18 years ago, I was pleased to experience my first Christmas. It was so much lower-key than in the US! Yes, shopping streets were lit up with Christmas lights. Yes, some stores held sales. But it was all much more subdued. And I particularly liked that the commercials on TV were far less obnoxious than Christmas commercials in the US could sometimes be.
I especially liked, and still enjoy, Sinterklaas, a child-centered holiday that the Dutch celebrate on December 5. I have my issues with its Zwarte Piet tradition, but the fact that Sinterklaas is on December 5 means that, traditionally, the Christmas season doesn’t begin until the day after Sinterklaas. The shortness of the Christmas season made it much more enjoyable. It didn’t drag on the way it does in the US.
I liked, as well, that since Sinterklaas is no longer a Christian tradition, children received their gifts then: all children, no matter what religion they were. So I could give my kids Sinterklaas gifts without that vague residual guilt that many secular Jews in the US feel if they cave in to the general societal pressure and get a Christmas tree and put up lights.
That left Christmas a truly religious holiday, which some celebrated in church, and many celebrated with a Christmas tree and a big meal at home with family. As non-Christians, we would spend Christmas day quietly at home, watching videos or reading a book.
Small scale, low key: perfect.
Things have changed.
The Dutch Christmas is gradually changing to resemble the American Christmas. While Sinterklaas is still welcomed enthusiastically, businesses are increasingly trying to wring more out of both the Sinterklaas shopping season and Christmas.
In recent years, the Sinterklaas merchandising has begun earlier and earlier. Pepernoten, a small spice cookie that’s traditionally eaten at Sinterklaas time, appeared in the supermarkets in August!
The Christmas lights, normally never appearing until the day after Sinterklaas, went up weeks earlier.
The advertising for gifts of all sorts didn’t let up at all after Sinterklaas; now they reference Santa Claus, American-style (called the kerstman here, or “Christmas man”), and urge gift-giving at Christmas as well.
While many Dutch already decorated their houses for Christmas with a candle here and there and a Christmas tree, now whole sections of stores are dedicated to displaying Christmas decorations. Often it’s the usual shiny Christmas ornaments, but lately more stores are selling items with images from the American Christmas story: reindeer pulling a sleigh; Santa carrying gifts, riding in a sleigh; and so on.
It makes no sense here to sell these images. That’s Santa Claus’s story, from America! Why would a Dutch person buy that? Santa Claus has never been part of the Christmas tradition in the Netherlands, nor have reindeer or a sleigh.
Added in 2020: In the last couple of years, Dutch businesses have even been following the American marketing tactic of holding Black Friday sales. This makes absolutely no sense, since Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated here. How can there be a Black Friday, meaning after-Thanksgiving shopping mania, if there isn’t any Thanksgiving?
I wonder, too, how Dutch people explain all this to small children. When my son, now 17, was little, I told him the story of Sinterklaas – that he lives in Spain and comes to Holland on a steamboat, and that he comes down the chimney to leave presents.
While Sinterklaas and Santa Claus have the same historical roots in Saint Nicholas, they look different and their stories are different. Sinterklaas is tall and thin, carries a crook, rides a white horse, and wears a bishop’s mitre. Santa Claus is fat and jolly, lives in the North Pole, and drives a flying sleigh pulled by reindeer. Two different cultures: two different stories.
When children see all these images of Santa Claus these days, what do Dutch parents tell them? Do they say, as I told my son when he was little, that Santa Claus is a cousin of Sinterklaas and brings gifts to kids in the US? Or are the children getting presents from both Sinterklaas on December 5 and Santa Claus on December 25?
I don’t know, but I fear the worst. I fear that Sinterklaas as a holiday for children will disappear. I fear that it’ll merge into Christmas and become a commercial shopping frenzy like in the US. I fear that those who prefer to celebrate Christmas as primarily a religious holiday will see that meaning get lost in the growing emphasis on gift-giving.
I liked it the way it was.
What is Christmas like where you live? Please add comments below!