In multi-cultural Singapore we have a never-ending sequence of free days and colourful celebrations that we all join in happily. The Deepavali henna had barely faded from the palms of my hands when Sinterklaas arrived at Marina Bay in his bumboat. As soon as the Sint leaves it will be time for Christmas and then the year will be over, but not the Singapore holidays as the main event has yet to come: Chinese New Year.
Usually, I am not the kind of expat that is prone to homesickness, not even over the holidays, but this year I find myself excitedly looking forward to a traditional Dutch Christmas at home. In Northern Europe this is a depressing time of the year. You take off for work in the dark and come back in it too - if you have an office job you won’t see daylight at all. Not that you miss much, a Christmas of falling snowflakes is more fairy tale than reality, days in December are likely to be drab, grey and wet. We need a party to get us through that, and Christmas marks the shortest day of the year, the darkest.
Our Singapore rainy season is well timed - huddling inside whilst a tropical storm rages, with gusts of winds sweeping through the trees, rain hammering on the windows; it is just as it should be this time of the year. Other things, less so. The light-up at Orchard Road is a depressing one this year; with not a Christmas decoration in sight Orchard Road makes clear once and for all what Christmas is all about for some: Disney. And commerce. It makes me glad to be Dutch, and makes me stick even firmer to our traditions: no presents at Christmas.
I never once received a Christmas present as a child. Christmas to us is about being together with family, special food, candlelight, singing carols. Even without presents, Christmas was magical. The smell of fresh pine (not the chemically sprayed American ones they have here – that keep smelling long after the needles drop off, but the real deal, from the forest) mixed with Christmas spice, open fires, stollen with almond spijs.
Fear not, there is no need to pity me - or my children. Because we have Sinterklaas. On the eve of his birthday, on December 5th the good old holy man, Saint Nicholas with his trusty junglepieten will drop off bags full of presents. Pakjesavond is the event of the year for Dutch children. Pepernoten (spicy tiny biscuits) are thrown around, and there is no end to unique candy associated with this day: marzipan, chocolate letters, taai taai, schuimpjes and borstplaat. For the adults: bishop-wine.
My favourite part? Sinterklaas is a holiday to get creative. This is the day to get back to your annoying little brother or teasing your classmate in a snappy poem and crafty joke as surprises are exchanged. Or house is already full of glue, cardboard, paint, papier-mâché and kids yelling ‘don’t come in, don’t look!’
And when the giving is over, later this December, my whole family, ooms, tantes, opa and oma will come together in our home for a real Dutch-Singaporean Christmas. With Christmas Day brunch and Indonesian rijsttafel and not a gift in sight. Because nothing you can wrap up can ever beat being together!