Post No. 10 — Kerste & Noel, A Dutch & French Christmas

Sitting here on January 9th, I wondered:  Had I missed my window to make a Christmas post?   But then I realized that that’s a ridiculous notion.  So here we go.

We spent Christmas this year across two countries — the Netherlands (Kerste) and France (Noel).  In both places, we experienced joy, beauty, and controversy.

The Christmas season begins in the Netherlands on November 25th when Sinterklaas arrives by boat to cities across the country.  In Groningen, it was a brilliant and chilly sunny day as I made my way to the main canal on the west side of the city.  People were gathering by the thousands, clinging to the edge of canals and across bridges, awaiting the parade. It’s amazing that no one plopped into the canal by mistake.

And then the Sinterklaas flotilla appeared.   Slowly at first with a few kayaks.

The children (and adults!) were glued to attention and full of anticipation.  As the kayaks drew closer, I saw the source of some of their excitement — and of the controversy to come — Zwarte Piet.

Zwarte Piet — or Black Piet — is Sinterklaas’ helper(s).  In a tradition that goes back hundreds of years in the Netherlands, Black Piet is known as the somewhat bumbling, likeable character who helps Sinterklaas with the gifts and makes the trek up and down chimneys on the night of December 5th (not 25th).  It’s because of their chimney delivery routes that Black Piets are given a black face.  Often, as in the picture above, Black Piets are depicted with just smudges on their face.  I saw many children in the crowd, on their parents’ shoulders, similarly besmirched.

But as the kayaks continued, I realized that more of the Black Piets in the flotilla were adorned in a more full-on black face, as the person below.  They waved and tossed pieces of candy to the crowd.   The children squealed with delight.  Everyone smiled.

By now the main Sinterkaas armada was coming and police came to direct everyone off the bridges so their spans could be raised to allow the larger boats to pass.

And then, in a jaw-dropping procession, Sinterklaas arrived.

Escorting the main vessels was someone who I presumed is an expert snowboarder who road a wave of water jets, soaring into the sky.

It was astonishing to watch.

But the hydro-technics aside, the main attraction remained the arrival of Sinterklaas himself, aboard a ship festooned with flags, surrounded by a retinue of Zwarte Piets.

The flotilla included a range of other characters in vessels of all sorts.

Other boats laden with Zwarte Piet musicians and other Zwarte Piets waving to the crowd made there way to the landing spot on the canal.

As I zoomed in with my telephoto lens, I was struck by the caricature of the Black Piets.  It wasn’t just the black complexion, but also the black hair with tight curls and bright red lips.  How, I wondered, did the story of a person getting some ashen smudges on their face due to those chimney trips morph into this full-scale lampooning depiction of people of African descent?  Amidst all of the music, the cheers, and the smiles, it was unsettling.

I knew that after Sinterklaas landed ashore, that he would join a street parade that would snake its way through town.  So as people started to leave the canal area, I started to walk back home, thinking that I might catch part of the parade route along the way.  What I encountered first, however, were the police.

And then I came upon the protest.

About 40 people were clustered together, holding signs, and chanting.  Counter protesters, positioned across the street and separated by a line of police on foot, were yelling back.  Into this fray entered Sinterklaas at the front of the parade on a horse,

Young children joined the parade, dressed as Black Piets.

Other, more fully costumed Black Piets, walked in the parade, waving, and tossing candy to the crowd.  As Sinterklaas passed the protesters, they cheered.  As some other parade participants passed, the protesters cheered.  But when the Zwarte Piets came through, they broke into chants which elicited shouts from the counter-protesters across the street.  If you want to get a further feel for the atmosphere around the protest, check the video below.  The first voices you’ll hear are those of the counter protesters.


I chatted with this dad who was there with his son.  He shared with me that he didn’t see a problem with the Black Piet tradition.  It was, after all, just a tradition.  It’s only a few weeks out of the year.  And it captures the spirit, the joyfulness, of giving around the Christmas season.  “What about the people who are offended by the tradition?” I asked.  He suggested that they didn’t understand the nature of Black Piet, and that it wasn’t meant to be racist.

Later that week when I was in a shop in town, I spoke with the shop owner and another customer at the checkout counter about Dutch Christmas traditions.  Neither saw any problem with the Black Piet tradition.  We have had several other conversations with Dutch friends.  They have noted how the tradition can be problematic, but also recognize how tightly woven it is in Dutch culture and their own life experience.

Throughout November and early December, the Black Piet tradition was visible everywhere.  From Zwarte Piet pastries in the bake shops to decorations in department stores.

All of this reminded me of the public debate in the States regarding the Confederate flag.  The slogan there of people defending the ongoing use of the Confederate flag has been “It’s heritage, not hate.”  I hear an echo of that conversation in the Black Piet discussions here.   As an outsider, I’m hesitant to level a judgment on a society — especially one which seems, from our daily experience, to exhibit far less racism than one encounters in the United States.

But the Black Piet controversy is far from resolved and doesn’t show any signs of going away.    A major highway was blocked by pro-Black Piet protesters.  Some schools have introduced the tradition of “Rainbow Piet” to get away from the black face stigma.   And in a popular late night Dutch TV show (think along the lines of the Daily Show), the host focused his entire 25 minute monologue on the Black Piet debate.  As an indication of how sensitive and polarizing the issue has become, he announced with fanfare that he had come up with a solution!  But before he could announce just what it was, he had to step away from the studio (trailed by a camera man), climbed the stairwell to the roof, was picked up by a helicopter dangling a rope ladder, was dropped into the sea, was brought on board a submarine, was transported to an underwater cavern in some iceberg in Antartica.  (All in about 20 seconds, thanks to the magic of TV.)  From that safely remote location, he announced his solution to the controversy:  The Zwarte Piet tradition should continue, but with just charcoal markings (not the full on black face, lips and hair), and mainly as an amusement for children.  I expect the Zwarte Piet debate will go on . . .

As November days crossed into December, Groningen’s streets, already beautiful, took on a magical air as strings of lights stretched across from one side to the other.  Each main street had their own decor.

The restaurant above featured a full nativity set, sponsored by Heineken!

The Grote Markt (Big Market), with the Martini Kerk tower to the right (it’s not actually leaning!) was bedecked with a huge Christmas tree and an ice skating rink.

All of these decorations spurred us to get our own Christmas decorations in order.  My daughter Elyse and I biked over to our neighborhood IKEA which was selling Christmas trees, for — would you believe it — 1 euro!  (20 euro, actually, but they give you a 19 euro coupon.)  Elyse expertly examined all of the trees.  Some were Charlie Brown-esque, but hey, it was 1 euro!   Of course, the other challenge was getting it home!

And then came December 5th.

This is the night that Sinterklaas (along with the Zwarte Piets) visits in the Netherlands and leaves gifts in children’s wooden shoes and by the tree.   As we were putting some finishing touches on our tree, our doorbell rang.  (It’s actually more the sound of a bunch of cow bells being jangled.)  I went to the door, opened it up, but no one was there.  But then I saw the package that was there at my feet.  One of our friends, in Dutch tradition, had “ring and run” and left us this sack with treats inside.

In Dutch fashion, our sack included different treats as well as a poem!

We had heard about these poems.  Traditionally, parents would write poems to their children which, tongue and cheek (or not!), they would chastise them for their miscues over the year past and offer guidance for the year to come.   When I had my conversation with the shop owner and customer about Black Piet, the other customer, a woman around my age, recalled how as a child she received a poem from her mother that was “this long” extending her arms far apart.  She recounted how her mother had ticked off a laundry list of self-improvement items for her.  She also said she received a kilo of salt that year in her shoes from Zwarte Piet (the equivalent of coal in U.S. Christmas lore).  But as I regarded her standing at the calendar, she seemed like a respectable lady.  Evidently she has gotten her act together in subsequent years!

I’ve been asked whether the Dutch also celebrate Christmas on December 25th.   Locals have told me that the Christian community has always marked December 25th as the traditional birth of Christ, but for the most part, the Dutch continue to do their gift giving on December 5th with Sinterklaas.   Some said this leaves Christmas Eve and Christmas day more focused on the Christian tradition, suggesting that it was less commercial and frenzied than in the States.

On Sunday afternoon, December 16th, I had a beautiful Advent experience when I attended a carol sing at the  500 year old “Nieuwe” Kerk.  As everyone entered the church, they were given a cup of hot cider.  (Gasp!  Beverages in the pew!)  Sipping my cider, I appreciated how the sanctuary was decorated.

The message on the hymn board read:  “Advent — God comes near us.”  Then from the balcony, the choir, De Cantorij van de Nieuwe Kerk, began to sing.

The choir was accompanied by an organist on one of Gronigen’s famous Schnitzger organs.   You can listen to their spirited rendition of “We wish you a Merry Christmas” below.


I left the church lifted in a way that only music seems capable of doing.

That week before Christmas I was busy in my volunteer work with the nonprofit organization “Groningen Verwelkomt,” which strives to help refugees in Groningen feel at home.  GV hosted two dinners that joined Dutch residents and “new Gronigers” from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, and beyond.   Separately, GV also put together “Christmas boxes” to deliver to refugees.  One of the volunteers, Judith, described to me how these “Christmas Boxes” are a tradition in the Dutch workplace.  Before the holiday, companies give their employees Christmas boxes which traditionally include wine, chocolates, coffee, ragout and pie bowls — fixings for a Christmas meal.  Modern additions to Christmas boxes that she has received in the past included headphones, cookware and gift cards to area retailers.  Judith noted that companies also give people the option of donating their Christmas boxes to charity.  She advised me, “If you’re at a company that doesn’t give you a Christmas gift box, you should leave!”

Judith and other Groningen Verwelkomt volunteers fanned out across Groningen in the week before Christmas to share boxes with refugees.  Many of the refugee recipients were practicing Muslims.  But the boxes were given in a spirit of hospitality, as expressions of welcome to those trying to make a life in a new land.

On December 21st, Janet, Elyse and I made the six hour journey from Groningen to Paris where we would spend the week over Christmas.  We arrived at the Gare du Nord and then made our way to our apartment for the week in the Village du St. Paul in the Marais district (4th Arrondisement), just a block from the Seine!  That first evening we walked over towards Notre Dame, which reminded us again of why Paris is called ‘The City of Lights.’


The following day was our daughter’s birthday.  Six months previous, we had made a lunch reservation at the Eiffel Tower.  Of course in June we had no idea that the Gilets Jaunes (“Yellow Vests”) would be  mounting protests every weekend in December.   We made our way over on the Metro only to find that a string of 5 metro stops were closed due to the protests.  So we got off at an earlier stop and made our way over by cab.  Lucky for us, the protests were in an area away from the Eiffel Tower.

After a wonderful birthday celebration lunch, we walked around the area towards the Arch de Triomphe and saw signs of the protests in boarded up store fronts . . .

. . . broken windows . . .

. . . banners . . .

{“Mr. Macron — stop punishing the poor”)

. . . and graffiti . . .

(“No Cartier for the rich”)

{“I have assured my duty of CITIZENI’m wearing my yellow vest.)

In the midst of this unrest, Christmas.

And so on Christmas Eve, I made my way to the American Church in Paris for one of their candlelight services.  As I arrived, I was heartened to see how intentional this congregation was in being a place of welcome, with a particular emphasis upon the refugee community of Paris.

And then in his Christmas Eve homily, Rev. Scott Herr drew our attention to two new banners that had been recently added to the sanctuary.

The first banner depicts the Holy Family as a family of Mexican immigrants.

In the next alcove hung another banner.

This one portrays Christ as a homeless person.

Then the lights dimmed.

And with those banners and all in attendance looking on, Rev. Victor Greene read those words which, for me, are the essence of Christmas.

Light in the midst of darkness.

That’s why of course it’s silly for me to think that I missed “my window” to offer this post.  In the face of all the divisions that rack our world today, in the face of too many people who are fleeing in search of a better life, or any life, in the face of desperation that is either very public or very private, very communal or very personal, we need this light of Christmas.

The light of hope.

The light of peace.

The light of love.

The light of joy.


I walked out of the church, out into that Christmas Eve night, into the City of Light.

On Christmas Day, we enjoyed family time in the apartment, opening a few gifts that we had brought from Groningen or picked up locally.  Then we took a walk across the river into the Latin Quarter.  I stepped into the St. Medard church.  Alongside a column in the nave I found yet another beautiful Christmas tree.

It was a prayer tree.

Here are a couple of the prayers:

“That everyone will have a marvelous Christmas.”




We shared a dinner in a cafe near the Pantheon.  And then we made our way through the chill of that Christmas night, warmed by the promise of Christmas and the love that we shared.





































































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