One of the interesting things about being an internationally based family is seeing how other countries celebrate our own familiar festivals. One such festival is Christmas. In the UK Christmas Day is the major feast day Father Christmas or Santa Claus delivers presents to children on Christmas Eve (24th December) and they are placed under the Christmas Tree (or in a stocking hung on the foot of the bed). This is I suspect largely the same as the US and most of the rest of the world; however in the Netherlands (where my children are now at school) it is slightly different.
In the Netherlands Christmas Day itself is a rather more muted occasion and children celebrate earlier on December 6th at Sinterklaas.
Sinterklaas celebrates the patron saint of Amsterdam, St. Nicholas; and as the similarity in the name suggests is thought to be the basis for Santa Claus. On Sinterklaas Eve (5th December) children put their shoes next to the fireplace with some carrots or hay inside. During the night Sinterklaas and his assistant Black Peter arrive from Spain in a steam boat and he travels round the country on his grey horse leaving presents in the childrens shoes. Traditionally all the family members get a chocolate in the shape of their initial together with a poem.
What all this means practically is that the shops are now full of people buying presents ready for Sinterklaas Day in the way we usually find in mid December in the UK. We were told by Dutch friends and colleagues that if we wanted to get the chocolate letters we had better do it by the 15th of November or they would be sold out! Toy shops and shopping centres are selling out of this years "must have" toys now and panic is setting in for those parents who can't get the only thing that their little darling wants due to the potent mixture of peer pressure and advertising. We spent the entire day yesterday scouring the shops for "Paul Frank" stuff which is the only thing R's classmate put down on her Secret Santa Wishlist. Not a good thing to do with three children and a husband on a Saturday.
Normally of course we are also in the middle of our own shopping panic but this year we are able to sit back and laugh about the whole thing (aside from yesterday!). The shops will all be stocked up again in between Sinterklaas and Christmas Day and we get a more relaxed time because everyone else has already pushed the boat out in early December.
So there you are- just when you thought you knew Santa Claus; he comes from Spain not the North Pole; he comes in a steam boat not a sleigh; he rides a horse and doesn't have reindeer; he has a human helper not elves and he comes on December the 5th not the 24th to do his deliveries; so close but yet so different. I wonder how many other countries celebrate Christmas in a different way?