THE DUTCH AND CARNIVAL

For a long time I thought all Dutch were Protestants.  That misconception was rooted in my own religious experience, living my entire life in Michigan, and my public school education as it related to world history.  I had little exposure to world history in school until high school, and even then the Netherlands was only mentioned briefly in regards to the German occupation during World War II, and the subsequent war crime trials held in The Hague.  As an avid reader, I gobbled up reading Anne Franks’ Diary on my own accord, and that probably was my first realization that not every Dutchman was Protestant. Somehow, the shelter of my own life as a Dutch descendent in Detroit, led me to believe that the entire homeland had been converted to the Dutch Reformed Church following the Reformation and spread of Calvinism.  This was further engrained living in Michigan, where almost all Dutch immigrants and their descendents were Protestant, belonging to one of 3 religious denominations: The Reformed Church of America (RCA), the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), and to a much lesser degree the Protestant Reformed.  All of these denominations stem from the RCA.  Other than my father’s older sister, who married a Catholic and raised her children in the Catholic faith, I had never met any other person of Dutch descent that was not Protestant.  Recently, I learned that there were some Dutch Catholic immigrants that settled in Detroit in the mid-1800s but their number was much smaller in comparison to the influx of Dutch emigrants of Protestant faith. Even my college experience, where I would learn about the Dutch masters and eventually spent three brief days touring Amsterdam did nothing to open my eyes to the diversity of religion in The Netherlands.

Then, as I began researching my family tree on my father’s Dutch ancestry side, my curiosity led me to learn more of the region of the Netherlands they emigrated from in the 1800s.  My misguided conceptions soon began to unravel, when I first learned that there are now more proclaimed Catholics than Protestants living in the homeland.  Next came the revelation that the once dominant Dutch Reformed Church, that was so instrumental in the decision of the first Dutch settlers in Michigan to leave their homeland, was no longer the state church, and in 2004 it actually merged with other Protestant denominations.  But there was more…my father’s paternal grandparents had lived in Noord-Brabant,  a province which was and still remains today predominately Catholic.  So it appears that the Reyst branch of my family tree may not have been Reformed Protestants for as long as I had originally imagined.  In fact my 4x great-grandfather is rumored to have been born around 1790 in the village of Holland, near Reusel-de Mierden, located in the very southern part of Noord-Brabant by the Belgium border.  It is reasonable to conclude that he may have been Catholic, and either he or his descendents converted to the Dutch Reformed Church after the family settled in Zevenbergen in the 1800s, which is located in the western part of the province, close to the predominately Protestant provinces of Zuid-Holland and Zeeland.  But even more enlightening…my great-grandmother, Helena de Reus, was born and lived until about 8 years old in Maastricht, Limburg, which has been predominately Catholic since 400 AD, and likely was raised Catholic.  Surprisingly, it is not inconceivable that at one time my ancestors may have participated in the pre-Lenten celebration known as Carnival.

Following the Reformation in the seventeenth century, the northern predominately Protestant provinces did away with Carnival.  Over time the festivities faded in the southern Catholic provinces, most likely do to pressure from the increasing influential Dutch Reformed Church.  However, following World War II, the tradition of Carnival was resurrected, mostly in the cities and towns throughout Noord-Brabant and Limburg, with Maastricht regarded as the top Carnival town.  The official start of Carnival in the Netherlands is November 11th (the 11th day of the 11th month) at precisely 11 minutes past 11 (called the “day of fools”) when the Council of Eleven names the Prince of Carnival.  Note the significance of the number 11. Thus begins the months of preparations by each municipality.  Festivities usually begin on the Sunday (sometimes Friday) before Ash Wednesday. There are parades dotted with floats containing large papier-mache figures, people dressed in bizarre costumes, some wearing painted faces or masks, music (sometimes with quite obscene lyrics), plenty of food, and lots of alcohol. This madness continues until the end of Shrove Tuesday, midnight marks the beginning of Ash Wednesday.  During the Dutch Carnival, some towns in Noord-Brabant, even change their name, like Den Bosch; it is known as “Oeteldonk” or “Frog Hill” during the days of Carnival. 

Like other Catholics around the world, Carnival is a time to indulge on those things that are given up during the 6 weeks of Lent, rich food being one of those forbidden items.  It was common for the Dutch to use almonds in lots of recipes during the Lenten fasting period leading up to Easter.  Traditionally animal foods were forbidden and almond milk was substituted for cow’s milk.  A popular cookie during the Lent was Bitterkoekjes (Bitter Cookies).  The name stems from the use of bitter almonds; today they are usually made with bitter almond oil.

Each day I learn how different the Dutch are from my childhood preconceptions.  There is more to the Dutch then the very private, conservative, hard-working relatives and other church members that I knew growing up.

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WHAT’S IN THE COOKIE JAR

With Christmas just two weeks away, cooks across America are busy stocking their pantries with those special ingredients required for their holiday baking.  In fact, the busiest aisle in Meijer (a superstore founded by Frederik Meijer, a Dutch emigrant, in Greenville, Michigan just north of Grand Rapids) this week was the baking aisle, with shoppers piling flours, sugars, mixes, extracts, and colorful decorations into their carts. My great-grandmothers, Helena Reyst and Adrianntje Smouter, were also probably busy this time of year, preparing traditional treats for their families’ celebration of Sinterklaas, Christmas and New Year’s Day.  A trip to the market would have included extra eggs, butter and almonds to make holiday pastries and cookies.

Speaking of cookies, the word comes from the Dutch word, koekje, which means small baked cake. Cooks would test the temperature of their ovens by placing a small dollop of batter into the oven first before baking their goods.  Eventually these small testers would evolve into popular bite-size treats.  It is said that the early Dutch settlers in New York and Pennsylvania introduced the cookie to America. 

Cookies are definitely my passion; I find it extremely difficult to bypass a plate of them. Guess you might say it is in the genes. Growing up we did have two traditional Dutch cookies in our house Dutch windmill cookies and, at Christmas, my mom would make Jan Hagel cookies.

Dutch windmill cookies, Speculaas, are a traditional cookie baked during the celebration of Sinterklaas.  We are most familiar with these cookies in the shape of windmills.  But they can be found in various shapes, the most common being the windmill, Sinterklaas, Sinterklaas on his horse, and Dutch children dressed in traditional Dutch clothing and wooden shoes. Speculaas means biscuit, and it is a crisp, spiced almond cookie traditionally baked in wooden molds.  Here in Michigan there are three bakeries that distribute the cookies, Archway (originally founded in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1936, it has been bought out by Lance, Inc. and are now produced in Ohio), Voortman (founded in 1951 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada by Dutch emigrant brothers and now distributed from Burlington, Ontario, Canada near Toronto) and Steenstra’s (founded in 1947 by the Steenstra family in Wyoming, Michigan and now located in Hudsonville, Michigan just south of Grand Rapids).  Of the three, I like the Steenstra’s variety the best as they taste the most like homemade cookies, and is the only one of the three bakeries to make speculaas in various shapes all centered on the tale of Sinterklaas. Here in the Metropolitan Detroit area, all three varieties are usually available at Meijer.

If you are really adventurous you can try your hand at making Speculaas.  You don’t need wooden molds, a rolling-pin and some holiday cookie cutters will do.  But if you want to be authentic you can invest in some wooden cookie molds.  Land O’Lakes also offers a slightly different version that you might want to try. Or you might want to try Gevulde Speculaas, which have an almond paste filling pressed between two layers of dough.

So this holiday my cookies will include both Jan Hagel and Speculaas cookies in remembrance of my great-grandmothers.

TIS’ THE SEASON

I have always been puzzled why we sometimes refer to Santa Claus here in the United States as St. Nick.  What does a plump, jolly old man with a white beard, red velvet suit trimmed in white fur, and black boots who rides in a sleigh driven by 8 reindeer have to do with a patron saint?  Having been raised in the Protestant Dutch Reformed Church, I had no idea what a particular patron saint stood for as our church generally referred to saints as a collective whole and did not pay homage to any one in particular.  Well it appears that our dear Santa Claus was inspired by the Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas, which will occur tonight, December 5th, in The Netherlands.

Our jolly elf’s name is believed by many to have been derived from the old Dutch name, Sinter Klaas.  There is no direct translation, but “Sint” means saint and “Klas” or Klaase” means class or classroom. Hence the reference to the patron saint of children.  In fact, today’s Dutch Sinterklaas (formally known as Sint Nicolaas), although considered a non-secular figure, has his roots in Roman Catholism.  Saint Nicholas was a Greek bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (now modern day Turkey).  He is best known as the patron saint of children, in addition to the patron saint of sailors and Amsterdam.  So it is fitting that our beloved Santa Claus, who loves children, should be named after this saint.

There are some similarities between these two figures: both have long white beards, both of their attires are red and white, both love children and reward them for being good throughout the year, and in more modern times both arrive in town in November, being the main focus of a parade. However, the history and cultures of these two countries have shaped the rest of these two holiday icons quite differently.  Sinterklaas’s story has evolved from the middle ages, where its roots mired the real saint’s life, and has been changed by the influence of The Netherlands’ changing culture, and particularly its secular and non-secular history.  His attire, that of a bishop, dates back to pre-Protestant Reformation times, his arrival from Spain in a steamboat references back to the real Saint Nicholas (whose remains ended up in Bari, which at one time was part of the Spanish Empire; the arrival by steamboat is attributed to an 1800s writer, whose understandment likely refers to the patron saint of sailors), his sidekicks, “Zwarte Pieten”, derive from the Moorish occupation of Spain and also The Netherlands territories in Africa during its Golden Age, and Zwarte Pieten’s representation as bad and evil, likely shaped by the church’s belief that unacceptable behavior would not go unpunished.

Our American Santa Claus’s history is much shorter.  It is widely believed that he was introduced by the early Dutch settlers in New York and Pennsylvania during the 1600s. But the Santa Claus we know and revere today was largely shaped by the poem “The Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore written in 1823 and by cartoonists of the 19th century, particularly Thomas Nast. Our beloved Santa Claus has always been viewed as a strictly non-secular image of Christmas.

By the time my great-grandparents arrived in America in 1890, Santa Claus was as much a part of the Christmas spirit as its religious counterpart, the celebration of the birth of Jesus.  But the commercialization of Christmas around Santa Claus would have probably come much later, first with the invention of the radio and later the television.  So the Reyst and Smouter families likely carried on the tradition of celebrating Sinterklaas on December 5th and 6th for a few years while their children were young.  Among the sparse belongings that they brought with them, I am sure there were pairs of wooden shoes that their four small children placed out on St. Nicholas Eve in hopes that they would be filled with candy  and small treats in the morning.  As a parent I know that I would have told my small children that Santa Claus would find them no matter where we lived in the world, so I am pretty confident that my grandparents and their siblings were also reassured that Sinterklaas would find them in their new homes in America.  In contrast to the celebration and gift-giving of Sinterklaas, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day would have been observed strictly as a religious event, attending church and spending time with family.

As I child I was fascinated with how different cultures celebrated the holidays. As a mother I had the opportunity to relive that awe through my oldest child, Erin. Every December her third grade teacher would depart from the usual curriculum and dedicate part of each afternoon to student reports on a particular country’s holiday celebration. In addition to the required poster board presentation, which would be proudly displayed on the walls above their lockers outside their classroom door, the children were encouraged to use other visuals as they reported on their chosen country’s traditions. The children bought in traditional holiday decorations, including homemade crafts, and even bite-sized samples of foods traditionally served during those holiday celebrations.  Maybe this year, you can take your own children or grandchildren on their own adventure and explore how families elsewhere in the world are celebrating the holidays this year.

HOMELAND TROUBLES

I have always been curious about the Netherlands since 6th grade European geography when we had to do in-depth reports on several European countries.  Fascinated by the landscape and culture of my great-grandparents, I was thrilled to at least have an opportunity to visit Amsterdam during the summer between my junior and senior years of college. So what enticed my great-grandparents, both young couples, to leave their homeland and come to the United States? 

Two important factors that likely influenced their decision to leave the Netherlands were the poor economy and changes occurring in the Dutch Protestant church.  Johannes and Helena left their hometown of Zevenbergen, a rural town located in Noord-Brabant, not far from Rotterdam.  Various historical records indicate that the wealth of the major Dutch cities, Amsterdam and Rotterdam in particular, was not extended to most of the rural areas.  Unemployment was high and probably affected my great-grandfathers’ ability to find work that would support a young and growing family as neither were landowners. Also the rural areas of the Netherlands were still recovering from the effects of the potato famine that struck their homeland in 1845-1846.  In the mid-1800s, the potato was a staple food of the rural Dutch cuisine. 1845 yield of potatoes in the Netherlands was down almost 75%, and consequently, dramatically affected both fertility and natality for the next several decades.  This is evident in my great-grandfather’s, Johannes’, family history that has revealed a high infant mortality rate among his siblings.

Also during the nineteenth century, religious dissent was occurring among the protestant Dutch in the Netherlands.  A division was being drawn in the Reformed Church between the more conservative Calvinists and the increasingly liberal State Church.  It is not known on which side of this division that my great-grandparents stood.  From a religious standpoint most outsiders would probably describe the Dutch protestants as generally very conservative.  But within the confines of the Dutch Reformed Church, there has been a long history of theological squabbling – drawing lines between being ultra-conservative, and quasi-conservative.  This division was apparent even here in Michigan, when the early settlements on the western part of the state split along religious differences in the mid-1800s.  The result was two separate denominations, the RCA (the more liberal faction) and the CRC (the Christian Reformed Church – the more conservative faction).

But even those that emigrated before my great-grandparents did in 1890, economic opportunity tended to out way religious reasons for making the move to the United States.  So I believe that hopes for a better financial future was most likely the primary motive to leave their homeland. 

So how would my great-grandparents have found out about these chances for better financial stability?  One way would have probably been via printed news.  Another way would likely have been discussions among the men of the church about what they were hearing of these new opportunities on the other side of the ocean.  But even more significant would have been letters they possibly received from family members who had already made that venture.