Sinterklaasfeest and a patchwork cultural heritage

The comforting parts of my Dutch cultural heritage that I like to wrap myself in when I’m feeling homesick are like a patchwork quilt that’s missing half the patches. Only so much can be safety pinned on by visiting the Holland Shop, or going through my Oma’s things.

We haven’t really celebrated “Dutch Christmas” for the past few years here in the van Loon house. I was going to say it was because Oma died in 2010, and we haven’t celebrated since she’s been gone — but that’s not really true. We sort of stopped doing much for the holiday even when she was alive, beyond making sure we made phone calls.

To be honest, it’s at kind of a crappy time for family get-togethers if family members are involved in school, or live far away. If we’d all lived in Vancouver getting a couple days off work would have been simple. But I was in Nanaimo from 2008 to 2012 and mom was in Powell River — and before that, we were in Hawaii. Everyone understands getting time off for Christmas — that end of December period — so you can fly home or take a ferry to see your loved ones. But December 5th? That’s finals week.

So it was hard to keep the celebration going each year. Often we just let it pass with a simple “Happy Sinterklaas!” to each other. Maybe mom and Oma said it, and more, in Dutch; I don’t know.

We talk a lot, in social justice circles, about how culture is like water and we’re fish. It’s so a part of us we don’t notice it.

This is true. What is also true is when parts of your culture are missing, you notice what’s not there. I’m not talking about the feeling of missing something that many Westerners get that then drives us to search for spiritual fulfillment elsewhere, often resulting in cultural appropriation problems. That’s a different thing, much bigger, more complicated; would make for a much longer blog post that I just don’t have the energy for right now. I’m talking about the strange feeling of being a first-generation Canadian, child to Dutch immigrants on one side and a mixed race US immigrant on the other, and the bits of culture that my parents had that I’m missing, and the bits that my grandparents had that my parents are missing too.

(The experience of culture loss on my dad’s side is a wholly different thing, though, and I won’t be talking about it here. I’m not trying to conflate post-WWII European immigrant experiences with 1950s Midwest American Indian experiences.)

My mom came to Canada when she was 3. She spoke Dutch as her first language, but she learned English early enough that she could be considered a native speaker. She continues to speak both languages well, approaching near-fluency in Dutch (if not full fluency). If you asked her I don’t think she’d disagree with my assessment of her youth: she spent a lot of it running away from her home culture. It happens. Being a post-WWII immigrant in Canada wasn’t easy; if one could assimilate, one did.

No houten klompen so I'm improvising with my Mary Janes. Gelukkig sinterklaasfeest!
Tonight’s improvisation with Mary Janes instead of klompen.

By the time I was born there was some reconciliation on my mom’s part with her home culture, I think, though truthfully she probably considers herself a Yukoner before she considers herself anything else. I grew up celebrating Sinterklaas Day with my Oma, getting chocolate letters* in my klompen left by the fireplace the night before, and blaming any gift mishaps on Zwarte Piet. (I know all about the racist implications now, but I didn’t then.)

Sinterklaasfeest was the main thrust of my connection to my Dutch heritage, though to this day if I need to find a set of these in someone else’s house it’ll take me several tries to get the English words out (while my fiance stares at me in horror and confusion, wondering if I’m having a mental breakdown as I shout at him in Dutch). Beyond a few words here and there, I don’t speak the language. I can attempt to translate it if I see it, but likely I won’t be able to.

Language is so much of culture, and it’s where I really feel the missing pieces. Oma used to call me schat, which is an endearment. It means treasure, or honey, darling, sweetheart. There were other words, too, that I can hear her say in my head but I couldn’t write them out if my life depended on it. She and mom would talk to each other in Dutch all the time, and often — more often as she got older — Oma would weave through Dutch and English without taking a breath as she spoke to us. She spoke Dutch when she talked about the Netherlands, mostly. We would have to stop her, and ask her to translate to English for me.

I spent so many years saying I was going to learn Dutch so I could just let Oma ramble on in whatever language. I tried, but I never got far. (It’s not an easy language to learn.)

Throughout my life, online and in meatspace, traveling and at home, I meet other Dutch people, often folks from the Netherlands, sometimes other Dutch immigrants or children of Dutch immigrants like myself. This is when I’m really struck — by how much is familiar, and how much is alien. This is when I see that the comforting parts of my Dutch cultural heritage that I like to wrap myself in when I’m feeling homesick are like a patchwork quilt that’s missing half the patches. Only so much can be safety pinned on by visiting the Holland Shop, or going through my Oma’s things. It feels like there’s something missing, there, something fundamental.

I’ve come to believe that the only way to find these missing pieces is to go to the Netherlands. The homeland. The source. The place where my ancestors were born and walked. The place where my mother was born. I want to go there and soak up the stories the land will give me.

It’s far off in the future. A huge undertaking, a trip like that. But a goal — shining ahead of me, something to work towards.

Sinterklaas Day care package, arranged on my ancestor altar. <3
The goodies on the ancestor altar, where Oma and Opa can enjoy them too.

In the meantime, an amazing friend has made Sinterklaas Day feel a bit more real, more homelike, for me this year. She lives in the Netherlands, and she put together a care package to send to me of traditional Sinterklaas Day goodies — some of which I can get in the Holland Shop, must mostly I can’t, and these were handpicked with love besides — along with the traditional poem. It arrived last week and I was able to pick it up yesterday. I immediately placed the goodies on my ancestor altar and didn’t touch them till today. My mom translated the poem from Dutch to English.

It made me feel like I was really home again. Like Sinterklaas Day had come once more and the past several years were just a temporary lull. And it made me feel good about celebrating that piece of my heritage again, about finding ways of building new traditions around it so it becomes something I can introduce to my future children.

Today, I got to have speculaas, kikkers & muizen (marzipan/fondant covered in chocolate — really sweet, really good), schoentijesmix, kruidnoten, and pepernoten with my coffee. And as my dessert. I got to read a poem by a friend, written just for me. Tonight, I put out my klompen — ok, I put out my Mary Janes. I don’t know where my klompen are, and at this point I’d need new ones anyway. (Besides, according to my friend in the Netherlands klompen are not required — any everyday shoes will do! And often, kids will try to put out more than one pair.)

Today, it felt like Sinterklaasfeest for the first time in many years.


*chocolate letters are sort of a big deal in my family. It’s hell on earth to find the correct letters for every person in your family (at least here in the Lower Mainland it is; the letters you need always sell out the fastest and you have to improvise), so going through the process of finding them for someone is a signal: you’re part of our family now. I don’t think my fiance fully understood that meaning behind it when he got me a chocolate K for Christmas one year, and thus was quite surprised when I started crying. (I mean, the crying was also because it reminded me of my Oma, and family, and FEELS, etc. It was a very emotional moment over chocolate, is what I’m saying.)

The Melancholy of Memory

My partner and I made an apple crisp on the weekend.

A simple recipe — sliced apples in a glass pan with a flour-brown sugar-cinnamon-butter combination put on top. Bake until browned. Basically. (Except we used margarine because we’re lactose-intolerant, and try to avoid dairy where we can so we can still have ice cream and cheese.)

When I was a young child my Oma (Dutch for grandmother) taught me how to cut apples the proper way. Halve it, quarter it, use a paring knife to cut out the seeds and peel it. She was so good at it she could cut out the seeds and peel a slice in one deft movement. Her specialty was applesauce — the secret, she said, was to make it from Granny Smiths, so it wasn’t oversweet.

It’s been over a year since she died, and I couldn’t stop crying as I cut apples and pared out their seeds.

30 in 30: Day 28 (hate mail in 3, 2, 1…)

Great Western Railway Hall Class, no. 5972 &qu...
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First favorite book or series obsession

This one is easy. When I was young, perhaps just before my first year of high school, my mom flung a book at my head and I started to read. As I’ve written about here before, that book and its sequels changed my life.

Harry Potter was my first series obsession. Which, I mean, is weird, because usually I’m pretty damn scary when I obsess over things, but I was less so with Harry Potter. Perhaps I just didn’t feel the need to go all bugfuck nuts in my expression of joy with each new page, or perhaps this was an obsession where I could actually see the flaws of my object of affection. Whatever the reason, my obsession with Harry Potter was mild by my standards.

This does not make it any less an obsession, for Harry Potter is and continues to be a central key to how I interact with the world, how I see things, and how I grow. Dumbledore’s words of wisdom reached more ears than just Harry’s, I can tell you that.

In fact, you could say my obsession got bigger as time went on — the more adult I became, the more engrossed in the world of Hogwarts I became, clinging to a world I didn’t want to graduate.

Well, graduation’s over, and I’m ready to face the world head-on. I should hope so, for I’m 25 now and if I’m not ready at this age, I never will be. The lessons I learned at Hogwarts will help me with that — I have an arsenal of spells at my disposal, courage and luck guiding my hand, and friendship to keep me strong.

And eternal fucking gratitude that it was not a bugfuck obsession with Twilight that shaped my adolescence, because otherwise I’d be wailing about how I need a boyfriend to continue to live (I can tell you that if I were a twihard, my boyfriend would not be with me — thank the gods for that; it shows he has strength of character) and probably still living in my mother’s house, provided she hadn’t killed and eaten her own young by this point.

30 in 30: Day 18 (Wiccans in Space, female-dominated societies, and the family Jewels)

Cover of "Daughter of the Blood (Black Je...
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Favourite Opening Scene to a Book

This is honestly something I haven’t given a lot of thought. Either the opening scene of a book is interesting enough grip me and I read the rest of the book, or it’s not and I don’t. I don’t rank the opening scenes as “favourites”.

A few books’ opening scenes that stand out are Daughter of the Blood by Anne Bishop, The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk, and an as-of-yet unpublished work the name of which I can’t remember by Kara Smith, an old friend of mine from high school. It was science fiction — Wiccans in space, basically, except way better than that phrase would lead you to believe. I need to find my copy back and reread it — Kara is an excellent storyteller, and the work is unfinished (well, the copy I have is), so it’s really the biggest clit-tease in the world to read the story over and over again. I should try and look up Kara again. Haven’t spoken to her in ages.

I digress. Aside from those opening scenes, I don’t know. Like I said, it either grips me or it doesn’t, and beyond that I really don’t think about it.

30 in 30: Day 15 (in which I am fairly whimsical about the Rootabaga Country)

Cover of 1922 edition of Rootabaga Stories, by...
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Your “comfort” book

Rootabaga Stories by Carl Sandberg.

I first read this book when I was fairly young. The stories ‘were born of Sandburg’s desire for “American fairy tales” to match American childhood. He felt that the European stories involving royalty and knights were inappropriate, and so set his stories in a fictionalized American Midwest called “the Rootabaga country” filled with farms, trains, and corn fairies.’ [1]

Alongside the traditional fairy tales brought over to North America from Europe, I grew up in Canada reading Rootabaga Stories, and they spoke to me much more strongly than the Brothers Grimm. There was a sense of adventure alongside a definite level of ridiculousness in the stories; they were crazy enough that you could believe they were true.

You get to the Rootabaga Country by train, and I’m sure it’s this book that created my childhood love of trains (that, and travelling by train from Vancouver to LA and across to Albuquerque and back again in an awesome trip that involved Disney Land and Universal Studios).

There’s something very reassuring about the idea that you can get to a mythical land if you just go far enough in a train, or on a bike, or by bus.  The idea that escape is always an option, if life gets too bad.

That is why we read fiction, after all. To escape into another world, if only for a few hours. I’ve spent my life finding new ways to escape every situation — so is it any wonder the books that bring me comfort are the ones where that fantastic land is just around the corner, and I’ll see it if I just squint my eyes the right way?

Time and time again I pick up this book and read through it, and find myself content in the knowledge that if it is so far, so early, and so soon, that I can get a long slick yellow leather slab ticket with a blue spanch across it and I will ride where the railroad tracks run off into the sky and never come back. [2]

Graduation from Hogwarts: the end of Harry Potter and my adolescence

Unless you live under a rock, you’re aware that the final Harry Potter film was recently released. If you know any fans of the series (statistically speaking, you probably do), you have somewhat of an inkling just how big a fucking deal this is.

For me, Harry Potter ending represents the ending of my childhood. Sure, I didn’t like the movies when they first came out (for many reasons that deserve their own blog post, really), but after the books ended the movies became the last thing to look forward to. Now, the final film has released, and its leaving theatres at the end of summer signals the imminent end to my adolescence.

Ok, ok, I’m almost 25 and so technically my adolescence ended about 6 years ago. Biologically, at least. Socially and mentally, I’m still a teenager. (Socially because no one really treats you like an adult until after the magical age of 25, and mentally because a) when one is treated like a teenager one tends to remain in that mindset and b) I don’t really want to grow up.) When I started reading Harry Potter, I was a really fucked up teenager. I was floundering, lost in depression and bad choices. One morning Mom woke me up by flinging a book at my head; I opened it up and started reading, and from that moment on my life began to change.

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Of Duct Tape and Spaniels: How to Express Four Years of Magic in a Single Letter?

I am trying to write a letter.

Ironically it’s the hardest thing in the world for me to do — me, a writer. But this is no ordinary letter — it’s a letter to someone who may go down in history as the single most important influence in my life.

Ms. Loudon was my drama teacher in high school. I went to HP Baldwin High in the hopes of joining the drama club, and join I did. I soon learned that I knew nothing about work ethic, as I was always the first one sneaking out of the room to avoid doing anything strenuous. After Ms. Loudon was done with me, I was the first to jump in and work, yelling at the Freshman for being lazy.

Continue reading “Of Duct Tape and Spaniels: How to Express Four Years of Magic in a Single Letter?”