Santa Clause comes to American children. We have Sinterklaas!


    “I’ve circled what I want Sinterklaas to bring this year,” my seven-year-old son declares as he hands me the ‘Toys“R’”us’ catalogue.
I scan his selection and nearly have a heart attack. As expected, his choices are all marked on the Lego Star Wars pages. But Thibaut strategically ignored the cheaper sets, exclusively circling four sets in the $100 to $200 range, far exceeding the $50 budget we usually grant Sinterklaas for his purchases.
“You know, those sets are expensive. I don’t think Sinterklaas has that much money,” I tell my son.
“But that’s why I chose them. Sinterklaas doesn’t need money. He makes the toys!”
“No, he doesn’t,” I reply, grateful that I decided four years ago to hang on to our Belgian version of Santa Claus, instead of adjusting to the American ways.
“Santa Claus only comes for the American children,” I had declared at the time. “Belgian children have Sinterklaas.”

A word of explanation for those who don’t know Sinterklaas is in order, I realize.

Starting out as a bishop long ago in faraway Turkey, Saint-Nicholas (or Sinterklaas) was a good man who cared for the poor, motivating the rich people to share with the less-fortunate.
Somehow over the centuries, Sinterklaas’ personality seems to have split in two.

One of his halves moved to the North Pole and started visiting the United States on a yearly basis in a sled pulled by a bunch of flying reindeer. Just like everyone who spends a lot of time in the States, Sinterklaas gained a few pounds and shed his stern aura. The man scored himself a wife and recruited a small army of little people who happily set off to work in a toy factory that would have made Henry Ford jealous. Through all those reforms, the skinny, intimidating and severe-looking  alter-ego of Sinterklaas has transformed into a chubby and cheerful Santa, whose dark eyes — almost completely hidden by his round, red cheeks — seem to light up as he utters countless ‘Ho-ho-ho’s’.

Meanwhile, Sinterklaas’ other half also packed his stuff and moved from Turkey to Spain, where he started focusing on children. Before some of your dirty minds go into overdrive, a word of warning. Sinterklaas’ fascination with kids is not in the least perverted, even though he initially did enjoy the occasional spanking of badly-behaved boys. Nor is the man obsessed with children all the time either. Tradition has him living in sunny Spain all year, in the company of his mischievous servant, Zwarte Piet (literally ‘Black Pete’) and a white horse. Nobody really knows what Sinterklaas, Piet and his horse do all year. They certainly don’t keep busy making toys, the ways Santa’s elves do. The general assumption seems to be that they just lazily hang around, enjoying the warm weather and eating good food. But comes the end of November, Sinterklaas and his sidekicks start rolling. The three of them embark on a steamboat and set off for Belgium (don’t ever believe the Dutch when they say Sinterklaas is headed for Amsterdam. Antwerp is his destination, as all Belgians know). Once there, Sinterklaas moves from throne to throne, posing for pictures with children at department stores, corporate parties and youth clubs.
Then comes the night of December 5, the eve before Sinterklaas’ very own birthday. Instead of granting the poor, skinny, old man a much needed night’s rest, he is forced to mount his white horse. Now, this horse proceeds to exhibit some sudden magical powers by gracefully elevating itself onto the rooftops, where it’s hooves find perfect grip on the ice-covered tiles. Zwarte Piet — Sinterklaas’ faithful helper — walks next to the horse, carrying a big bag filled with toys. He is the one who descends down every chimney — hence his black face — artfully arranging the toys around countless Belgian fireplaces.. Grabbing the carrots that grateful children have left in their shoes to reward the magic horse, Zwarte Piet swiftly replaces them with unwrapped chocolate and candy, which Belgian kids will eat the next day — completely oblivious to any potentially funky shoe odors. In the olden days, Zwarte Piet’s sack also contained a whip which he would use on the ‘lucky’ bad kids. Their less fortunate bad peers would be unmercifully stuffed into Zwarte Piet’s sack and be delivered to Sinterklaas for a proper punishment, whatever that might have been.
Nowadays however, Europe got more civilized. Even we think using whips on kids and stuffing them into sacks might potentially be traumatic. As a result the whipping and sack-stuffing have been deleted from Zwarte Piet’s job description, considerably improving the man’s popularity among children.

My decision four years ago to adhere to our Sinterklaas tradition and to ignore Santa, was not borne out of a stubborn refusal to adjust to the American way of life. I just figured that our winters were spiced with enough presents as it was. What with both our children’s winter birthdays, Sinterklaas, our family’s Christmas gift exchanges, plus New Year? Besides, we had initially planned to move back to Belgium in a mere two years time, so why add new tradition we’d soon be dropping ?

“Where does Sinterklaas get his presents if he doesn’t make them?” Thibaut wants to know.
Now that’s a good question. Nowhere in the Sinterklaas stories, can one learn where the man gets his toys. Were they purchased at the store down the street? Does the bishop have an underground superstore in his Spanish Castle? Or does he use magic to fill Piet’s sack? It’s all very vague.
“I think he buys them,” I reply.
“That’s not possible!” Thibaut exlaims. “Everyone would recognize him if he went to the store.”
“Well,” I say, stalling while I think. “Maybe he sends Zwarte Piet to the store. He wouldn’t stand out as much.”
“With his flashy clothes and his silly hat with the feather? Mama, everyone would stare at him!”
“Well, … , I guess they just order everything from Amazon then,” I say, proud of my reply.
“For all those kids? That would take forever! Besides, Sinterklaas would have to give his password to Zwarte Piet. He’d never trust him to order stuff on Amazon!”
“Okay, …, well, …, I really don’t know where he gets the presents, but he certainly does not make them. You’d better choose some cheaper Lego sets for him to bring. He’ll never have enough money for the ones you selected.”

Slightly disappointed, Thibaut sets to work again, leafing through the catalogue in search of cheap presents. Suddenly his face lights up.
“I know what I’ll do!” he announces. “Soon I will become American, right?”
“Well, not very soon, but you will, eventually,” I reply, wondering where this is leading.
“Well, I’ll write an email to Santa, asking if he can come to our house this year already. Santa doesn’t need money to make Lego sets. He’ll bring me the ‘Death Star’ or the ‘Millenium Falcon’ for sure!”
Oh …
“What about Sinterklaas then?”
“That’s the good thing!” Thibaut jumps to his feet, all smiles. “You said we would be American AND Belgian. So Sinterklaas will still bring the good chocolate, the candy and the cheap presents and Santa will bring the cool toys!”

Oh, I guess we’d better start saving then …

Want to read more? Helene Toye’s book : “Go West: A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood” is available on



“I’ll leave the room while you put this on. The opening in the front,” the doctor says. With that, he hands me what looks like a huge white tissue and leaves the room.
During this first American doctor’s visit I’ve already completed a seven-page questionnaire, supplying details about every family member I can think of, and I’ve answered even more questions during my thirty-minute talk with the doctor. What is striking is that I feel fine. All I need is for this man to tell the orthopedic surgeon that I’m cleared for surgery on my broken wrist.
As the doctor closes the door, I unfold the white thing. That’s when I realize it’s a paper gown. I smile. Never have I seen anything so silly before. I undress and put it on. In the process, a tiny plastic ribbon falls to the floor, where I leave it. I sit on the table and arrange the gown so that it covers my belly and breasts. Then, on second thought, I get up again and pick up the small plastic thing, which I carefully place on top of my folded clothes.
There’s a knock on the door. “Are you ready?” I recognize the doctor’s voice.
“Yes,” I say, crossing my arms loosely in front of me.
The door opens and the fifty-ish man comes in. As soon as he sees me, he covers his eyes and cries out, “Oh no! You haven’t tied it!” I look down at the gown. Maybe I overlooked some buttons or strings? No, I didn’t.
“How am I supposed to tie it?”
“There!” he says, covering his eyes with his left hand while his right hand points at the chair holding my clothes. “That’s the ribbon!” he says, his voice alarmingly high.  Maybe he thinks I’m trying to seduce him in my paper gown and black socks?
“That thing?” I reply, astonished. “That’s way too small. It will never fit around my waist!”
“Yes it will,” he almost shrieks. “You’d be amazed at what they can do with plastic nowadays.” With those words, he leaves the room again.
Sure enough, when I stretch the ribbon, I realize I could wrap it three times around my waist if I wanted to. I tie the thing and sit down on the table again. When the doctor finally comes back into the room, his cheeks have lost their red flush, returning to their gray shade.
I feel I owe the man an explanation for my strange behavior. “Sorry,” I say, “But we don’t have these in Belgium.”
“No?” he replies, his voice normal and steady again. “Then how do you tie your gowns?”
“Our gowns?” I say. “No, you don’t get it. It’s the gowns we don’t have.”
“No gowns? Then how does a doctor examine you?”
“Well, we just undress and stand before him,” I say, adding quietly, “Naked.”
The doctor’s cheeks turn dark crimson. “Oh,” he mumbles.

As he stares at the wall behind me, I’m certain he’s considering emigration to Europe.


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Hurray for Fall!


Fall has finally forced its way into the nation’s capital. Leaves are floating down to rest on lawns. That is, until over-zealous gardeners will chase them with their loud leaf-blowers. Nature is displaying a beautiful pallet of colors under a bright blue sky. Even though we still enjoy mild afternoon temperatures, mornings have gotten colder. And really, that is a good thing. 

  Two days ago, after an exceptional four-day bout of heavy – and I mean really HEAVY – rain, all the energized morning runners seemed to embrace my 14-year-old daughter and me into their active world again. Not that we were running, mind you. My morning alter ego could never be coaxed into such an intense activity and one look at my daughter told me she felt the same way. However, from the safe haven of our car, we enjoyed observing the runners. Or at least, I did. My daughter seemed too absorbed in reviewing her French presentation to notice the human variety on display.

As a result of the colder weather, the middle-aged man — who only last week proudly displayed his overweight, hairy, bared torso — was now wearing a lycra, slightly slimming shirt. A most definite improvement.

The perky lady, her highlighted ponytail dancing on the top of her head as the stroller attached to her right wrist pulled her forward, had traded her hot pink sports bra for a flashy green, polyester shirt. I, for one, was glad about that transformation. For who needs reminders that some not-so-young mothers are able to perfectly tone their belly, despite having to exercise with their kids in tow?  

Only the Lara Croft look-a-like — her ample breasts flattened by a severe black, sports top — obstinately still showed off her sculpted abs, only partially covered by the tool belt that secured a blue power drink to her back. But that didn’t really bother me. Lara Croft competes in different league altogether anyway. 

While I might aspire one day to obtain the blonde stroller-runner’s stomach, there’s no way I’ll ever display Lara’s muscles. Not the ones in her abs, but neither those in her arms, her legs or, for that matter, her buttocks – neatly packed today in electric blue, polyester shorts. 

 Still, seeing all those active people, made me feel energized and motivated. I could hardly wait to don my own workout outfit — carefully covering my belly — for a run at noon. I envisioned myself a bit later doing some crunches in our backyard, slightly hitching up my t-shirt to catch as many sun rays as possible. Just because the afternoon fall temperatures would allow me to do so. Besides, who knew, if the weather held, I might soon be spotted wearing a hot pink sports bra for my run, proudly displaying my toned and tanned abs. 

Then again, maybe not … For one thing, I didn’t own a hot pink sports bra and I was pretty sure none would be available for purchase in fall. For another, the remaining number of warm October afternoons would never be sufficient to tan my stomach. As a result, I quickly erased the shirt-lifting images from my afternoon routine and moved my crunches to the indoors. Who needed a tan and toned stomach just before winter anyway? 

In an instant I had created a new plan for the day. I would go for my noon run and then stretch on a lounger, enjoying the colorful display of leaves around me. Never mind that I wouldn’t have the time to just lie around. Just to think about it made me happy.  

Hurray for the Washingtonian fall!

Paper Bag Lunch



Only yesterday, sitting on my son’s friend’s porch, I boasted about my near-perfect integration into American culture. 

“Yes, it’s true,” I told Susan when she asked if moving from Europe four years ago had been hard, “It was difficult at times. Mostly I felt like such an alien. Everything I did seemed not to match the customs. I am so happy I now know what is expected of me.” If only I had known what awaited me this morning!


I am preparing my 7-year-old son for a field trip to the National Museum of Natural History.

“Please pack a paper bag lunch,” his teachers’ note reads. And that’s really all it takes to throw me off-guard …


After scavenging through the mess of my bags-cupboard, I proudly produce a small, lunch-sized brown paper bag with handles. Thibaut, always very conscious of doing the right thing, does not seem convinced. 

“Are you sure this is the kind of bag I need?” he asks. 

“I’m sure this one is perfect,” I reply self-assuredly while I slice a buttered sandwich in half. And that’s when it hits me. I don’t know how to prepare a paper bag lunch! For how do you put buttered sandwiches in a paper bag? Do you just slide them in? Surely if you do, the butter will stain the paper, make it all greasy and prone to tearing. So maybe I need to put the sandwiches into a small plastic ziplock bag before slipping them into the paper bag? But then the whole recycling point of paper is gone, right? My son can’t make me any wiser.

“I don’t know how the other kids pack their lunch, mama,” he says, sighing. “Their moms probably know how to do it.” Oh, how I long for the Belgian field trips on which every child carries his own mini-backpack containing his own sturdy lunchbox! 

I decide to go for the small ziplock within the paper bag and throw in a liquid yoghurt stick as a dessert. 

“What about drinks?” I turn to my son again. “Can you bring your water bottle?”

“I don’t think so,” he replies, “I think we have to throw everything away after the lunch.” So I take a small plastic bottle out of the fridge. Only, with the condensation on the bottle, the paper bag will surely tear, right? 

“Should I put your paper bag in a plastic bag, so we’re sure it doesn’t get ripped?” I ask my son. 

“No mama! Then it’s not a paper bag lunch anymore.” Thibaut looks exasperated, so I decide not to push it and just slip the wet bottle into the paper bag, bravely ignoring the dark wet stains that immediately show. There, the lunch is ready. But what about transportation? Will it be thrown into a big basket with the other lunch bags before being hauled onto the bus? My son’s bag will surely spill all its contents if it is not held upright, by the handles. I quickly run to my daughter’s room to grab some tape.

“What are you doing now, mama?” Thibaut exclaims. 

“I’m closing your lunch bag,” I explain.

“Not with tape! You have to fold the top so that it closes,” my son instructs me. I look at the small bag with handles, from which the top of the water bottle protrudes. “There is no extra paper on the top, Thibaut. I can’t fold anything.” My son watches in horror as I tape the top of his bag. Then I take a Sharpie. 

“What is that for?” Thibaut asks, looking on the verge of a breakdown. 

“To write you name on your bag,” I explain. “How else will you know which bag is yours?” 

“Oh, no, now everyone will know the weird lunch bag is mine!” 

What? This bag is not weird! I just shrug, writing my son’s name in neat small letters. I take a step back to admire my work. The bag looks cute, actually. Almost like a small present. All it’s missing is a colorful bow. One look at my son however, tells me that a nice bow would be over the top, so I decide to let go of my creativity.

My computer, producing a joyful ‘Ping!’ to alert me of a new e-mail, averts my attention to more earthly matters.

“The government shutdown includes the DC Smithsonian museums. So, unfortunately, we need to cancel today’s field trip,” Ms. Gomez’s mail reads. Oh, that is sad. Thibaut will be SO disappointed.

“Bad news, Thibaut,” I turn to my son, trying to find the best words to break this news. “You will not be able to go on your field trip today. But Ms. Gomez promises  – “  My lengthy and empathic explanation is cut short.

“Great!” Thibaut grabs his paper bag lunch from the kitchen counter and tears it apart. “Then I don’t need to take this paper bag!” In two moves he transfers his food to his regular lunchbox, only leaving behind pitifully looking paper shreds on the stone counter. 


So much for my attempts at being an American mom. After dropping off my – very cheerful – son at school, I return home, determined to find a You-tube tutorial on how to prepare a paper bag lunch. Another step forward to my complete integration.