I need more pepernoten in my life

I never thought I’d miss it.

Today it’s ‘pakjesavond’, Dutch for ‘package evening’. On this evening, St. Nicolas brings around gifts to kids to celebrate his birthday on the 6th. Quite a generous dude, that Nico. And very fond of kids… He’s much like Santa Clause, minus the morbid obesity. The Saint likes to party, and he does not hold back. He spends all year living in Spain (probably Ibiza), and around mid November he boards his steamboat, filled with presents, and moves to the Netherlands. He also brings a white horse and a hoard of helpers (formerly ‘black’ Petes) who are awkwardly reminiscent of slaves, and for a long time were even painted black – hence the name. (The Petes were always happy fellas, but that didn’t make it right.) The saint’s arrival is a huge event for kids, with lots of presents and candy. In the last decade or so, many people have woken up to the fact that that sort of slavery-inspired message is not okay to teach to kids, and certainly no cause for celebration. These days, the Petes often are rainbow colored, or not colored at all. I guess it’s better this way, but I’m no fan of rainbow colored slaves either. I hope that these days they at least have a minimum wage, an end-of-year bonus, and health insurance and retirement plans.

Package evening is deeply engrained in Dutch culture. St. Nicolas is picky, and is rather selective in where he brings his festivities, and even more selective in whom he gives presents. Maybe he likes Dutch open-mindedness, or maybe he was inspired by the tainted colonial history of the country. Who knows. As the story goes, he only gives presents to kids that have been sweet all year, and it’s pretty clear to me now that he also only delivers in the Netherlands, or maybe also the close surroundings. Here in Bavaria, St. Nicolas does celebrate his birthday on the 6th. But he clearly likes Dutch people more. Here, you might get a dry cookie, if you’re lucky. However, there doesn’t seem to be any special festivity surrounding his birthday. No boat, no horse, no party, no presents, no candy. On the positive, also no slaves.

I haven’t really celebrated the event much in the past ten years or so. It’s mostly a kids thing, although in my student days we’d play games around it, which was kind of fun. Without kids or study, it wasn’t for me, although I’d always devour a load of chocolate ‘pepernoten’, St. Nico’s favorite cookie. They unfortunately don’t sell pepernoten here in Bavaria. I miss that. Luckily, my mother-in-law foresaw that our lives would be more whole with a bag of pepernoten, so she sent us supplies.

Now that I have two kids myself, it also feels strange not to celebrate St. Nicolas. In a way I don’t mind not buying into this commercial horse crap, but on the other hand, it is part of Dutch culture that my kids are missing out on. I don’t think the kids see a connection between the event and any form of negativity. It’s mostly fun. It was a positive part of my own childhood. And now it isn’t part of my own kids’ youths, at least it hasn’t been in the past three years.

Taken individually, they’re all no big deal, but all the tiny sacrifices made for living in another country taken together do add up. Career-wise I’m in a great place to be, but on days like today, I also wouldn’t mind moving back as soon as possible…

I’m sure it’ll be better tomorrow (especially if I can score one of those dry cookies).

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

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