Dano, Melissa, Kennedy, Ethan, Erin, Abigail, and Emily

Dano, Melissa, Kennedy, Ethan, Erin, Abigail, and Emily

26 January 2012

To Market, To Market

If you’re ever at a loss for something to do during the holiday season in Europe, chances are you can find a Christmas market (Kerst Markt) to visit nearby. There are eight around The Netherlands. They are bright, fun, and crowded. We decided to visit one in Holland first.
We met up with our friends, the Bendis Family, at the Valkenburg Cave Markets.
The Valkenburg Caves are situated in southern Holland. They are the result of mining efforts of the Romans in the 11th century. They were mining for marl to build a castle, as seen on the hill behind us.
The secret passageways were also used by US troops when they came to liberate The Netherlands in WW2. I’ll write more about that when we go back to tour the caves. This visit was for the Christmas market and the tours were closed.
It was quite a unique setting to have booths set up inside the caves. One could definitely get lost through the five kilometers of secret passageways. We were a little disappointed with the selection of crafts as most things were ‘Made in China’. I loved this booth, but I really doubted the purses were locally produced.
However, there was one wonderful booth where a lady was carving clay and molding it right there. She let the children try their hand at it, too. She was from Lithuania and we loved her work. It was the one thing we bought at the Valkenburg Kerst Markt. We chose a rendition of Helpoort which is, as we’ve been told, the oldest standing structure in The Netherlands. Though we didn’t get a picture, one could see it in person when he/she comes to visit. Really wonderful artisanship.

The kids loved seeing Santa walking through the caves as well as seeing his sleeping quarters and room for the elves, triple bunks included.The painted murals were intriguing and I’m excited to come back and learn more about them.
We knew we wanted to visit a Christmas market in Germany also, the pride of Christmas markets. Germany boasts nearly 120 Kerst Markts! We had heard Cologne had the best. There are eight just in Cologne. We waited until my brother and his friend, Laurie, were both here then we zipped over to Cologne for the day. The part we all enjoyed best was Cologne’s cathedral. From start to finish, the building process took just over 632 years. It was amazing to walk through this beautiful cathedral.We couldn’t help but think of all the history that had taken place within these walls over the past centuries. The relics of the Magi are said to be enshrined behind the altar.The stained glass was stunning, but that seems to always be one of my favorite parts of a church or cathedral.There are also multiple sarcophagi throughout the cathedral, also dating back hundreds of years. It would have been most helpful to read German to know what was written on the descriptions. Some of our children thought it was a little creepy. I thought it was fascinating, but maybe that's the Indiana Jones-lover in me. Unfortunately the camera, as always, doesn’t quite do the setting justice. If it wasn’t so chilly (and we if didn’t have shopping to do!) I could have sat on a pew for a long time just enjoying the expansiveness of the chapel and the peacefulness of the cathedral.

We managed to make it to two of the markets. They were very cute and more crafty than the previous markets. As always, Emily rode around like the Queen of Sheba.
What better way to entice the kids to shop than to let them enjoy the rides?
The highlight of the Cologne market was adding a nativity to our collection. I love it and was so captivated by the display that (once again) I didn't even get the camera out. I am already deciding on one for next year. Perhaps next year we’ll make it to the floating Christmas market –one that’s actually on a ship.

17 January 2012

Christmas in The Netherlands

It would be ridiculous now for me to write a blog entitled “Novemblur” or “Decemblur” so I am just going to write as though it has not been TWO WHOLE MONTHS since I’ve written. Then, hopefully, the guilt will slowly begin to wane…We enjoyed spending the holiday season here this year. I love seeing how different cultures celebrate holidays and The Netherlands was no exception.

Their celebration of Christmas begins with St. Martin’s Day on November 11. Abby celebrated this with her class. Regrettably, I don’t think I got a picture of her with her lantern. They sing a very cute song and receive either oranges or candy. The Dutch children do this in a similar fashion to Halloween. We saw a few children out on November 11th with their lanterns. They then take their “snoop” and share it with others.

The Saturday following St. Martin’s is the day Sinterklaas arrives. This is a huge day! As tradition goes, Sinterklaas was a bishop (St. Nicholas) born in Myra, Turkey several centuries ago. He supposedly saved some young girls by tossing gold coins into their bedroom one night to pay their father’s debt. Like Santa Claus, Sinterklaas lives forever. Sint (as he is often referred to) arrives by boat from Spain, where he keeps his residence (sounds nicer than the North Pole, doesn’t it?) With him he brings his zwarte Pieten (black Petes) and his white horses. The Petes are his helpers, akin to elves. One may be taken aback at first glance and the Dutch are often accused of being racist. However, once you actually listen to an explanation you realize the Petes are black because they are covered in soot from climbing down chimneys whilst helping Sinterklaas. They also may have darker skin because of their Moorish heritage. They are the jovial, jolly ones who give out candy and especially pepernoten, yummy, tiny gingersnap-like cookies. Again, I failed to get a picture of these…next year. Sinterklaas, on the other hand, is serene and revered as he is a bishop. One Dutch teacher explained to us she was quite offended upon her first Christmas visit to the U.S. and our comfort with hugging Santa and his ho-ho-hoing about and Mrs. Claus?... Sacrilege! Honestly, the more I’ve read, I think we’ve just adapted our traditions, and our St. Nick is the same as their Sinterklaas. I wonder how much of that is dependent upon the Dutch colonization of New Amsterdam, which later became New York. Did they bring this tradition with them to our part of the world?

Because of a soccer tournament, we didn’t get to attend the grandest of entrances into The Netherlands where he arrived in a steamboat followed by a huge parade. We did, however, go the next week when Sint arrived here in Wassenaar. We gathered with the rest of the town at the end of the canal and waited. The Petes arrived first and danced and gave the children candy and the pepernoten.

We loved seeing the Dutch children dressed up like Zwarte Pete and Sint.
They were selling balloons and had a live DJ.We finally caught sight of Sinterklaas coming but were not able to stay for the big parade. And to think, this was all a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving!After Sinterklaas arrives, the celebration continues until December 5 (his birthday), when Sinterklaas leaves a mass of gifts for good little children. They are left hidden somewhere in or near the house in a burlap sack. Children also are to put out their wooden shoes to be filled and perhaps an apple or a carrot for Sint’s horses. Here are ours in line from Emily's to Kennedy's with their treats for the horses.
Many Dutch children receive a gift each day until December 5. We decided we would honor a portion of the Dutch tradition. Abigail and Erin decorated shoes at school, too, where Sinterklaas happened to find them. Sint found our house and left some ever-popular gold coins and a chocolate initial for each child. I can’t remember the significance of the initials, but they, too are everywhere!

It was so much fun to learn about this wonderful and unique way the Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas. It was nice to have it separate from Christmas. They still celebrate Christmas, (if they’re Christian, of course!), but Sinterklaas and gifts are completely distinguishable from celebrating the birth of Christ. We hope each of you had a joyful holiday celebration.