Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Sinter Klaas

Last night, a real Currier & Ives snowfall might have contributed to the mood--six inches of pure fluff coming straight down, an anomaly out here on the edge of the Plains. Maybe the snow made it sweet--I'll grant you that. Whatever the reason, we had a great time.

One of the most warm cultural traditions of my own Dutch ancestry is something that really never made it to North America--the tradition of Sinter Klaas, and specifically, the Sinter Klaas party rituals. I'm 100% Dutch American, but no one in my family ever heard of Sinter Klaas, largely because, I'm sure, we're somewhere around 5th generation.

For several years, a bunch of us got together and celebrated a Sinter Klaas party, when those who knew its riches decided to have one here. It's been awhile, but our friends revived the whole operation this year.

It's normally celebrated, I'm told, somewhere around the first week of December, which is approximately when Sinter Klaas and his totally un PC friend Swarte Piet, suddenly appear around Holland. There's a whole lot of traditions that go with it--like putting a chunk of coal in the shoes of kids who've been naughty--that I don't know much about. But this Sinter Klaas party requires each participant to create an intro--a poem or a story--about the person whose name he or she has been given. And that person--the recipient--has to read the poem before unwrapping the present. Thus, the ritual includes is often revealing--let's face it, often hilarious--stories about each of the folks around the table.

Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me that the Dutch sense of humor is droll and wiry, sort of sneering, in a way, and probably not all that funny to others. Years ago, in Holland, on a drizzly afternoon (most of them are), I was walking down a street in the center of a small town, my collar up, as I remember, when a guy simply ended up walking right alongside me. He had no clue I was an American, so he looked up at me, rolled his eyes, and said something in Dutch I didn't have to know the language to understand--it was wry comment about a rotten weather. I recognized the joke by the tone of line, not by the meaning.

Anyway, our Sinter Klaas parties, full of that kind of self-depricating humor--used to be great fun, except for one thing. They require immense preparation. Maybe it's just me--I've got a reputation to protect: if you're a writer, you better be good. But the trick is nobody knows who's got anybody else's name anyway. Well, sometimes it becomes somewhat obvious, but last night, at our party, the bestower of most of the 14 gifts were totally anonymous. All of which is great fun.

But, the requirement of time is immense. It took me most of Saturday to get the present ready and write the poem. In addition, I subbed for the absent Sinter Klaas, so I had to say a few words before the presentation of 14 gifts. Now I don't have a full day to give to anything, much less an event that is nothing, really, but fun. Look, what I'm saying is, I don't have time for that much fun.

But I took it. And we had a great time.

And now allow me to imagine a nostalgic past, when people had no money for a quick spree even in the Super Wal-Mart. Imagine a time when the only way to give gifts was to prepare them. I'm not waxing nostalgic here because in my life we've always bought gifts--but what I'm saying is imagine if we actually took the time to make, to create, to invent our gifts: just imagine what that would be.

Some families do. They're the smart ones.

Okay, so three weeks ago one of our friends comes around and says, "We're going to do Sinter Klaas this year--you in?" I couldn't say no, even though I was absolutely sure that I didn't have the time--end of semester and all of that--to give to the whole blasted ritual. Nonetheless, I signed on.

I was right. Took me all day. I got nothing else done--didn't read any students papers, not one. And now it's over.

But I wonder if our joy at this Christmas season wouldn't be profoundly enhanced if each of our gifts were prepared with the kind of emotional and personal investment I put into a gag yesterday for Sinter Klaas. That's all I'm saying. I don't think anyone really believes you can buy joy.

When the person whose name I had received his gift and read his poem, my joy at his laughter--and ours--was as great as his. And that was true, all around the room.

The best lessons in life are so easy to see and yet so hard to accomplish.

And now, I got to shovel snow. But it's light.

No comments: