Once again, December 5th rolls around and the advanced people of the Netherlands celebrate Sinterklaas, twenty days before the rest of us get around to it.
And once again, the celebration is simultaneously fun, innocent, and mildly horrifying. Think of it as a plate of holiday goodness, with a dash of racism from yesteryear. Yes, Zwarte Piet with his dubious origins (devil/slave/chimney sweep, depending on who tells you) shows up again in streets, homes, and restaurants, delighting kids and being disturbing only to expats and tourists.
That said, it was a very nice dinner in 't Elfenbankje, a small cottage in a sprawling park here in Haarlem. It's a Dutch pannekoek (pancake) house all the way through, with dinner and dessert-style pancakes on the menu. The hospitality and warmth pulls you in as you walk by, dark brown decor and candles peeking through the windows. Hansel and Gretel, if they were Dutch, would not be out of place strolling in here.
Our servers, normally attractive young women, were covered in blackface (for this one day of the year only, mind you) and smiling bravely throughout, playing the role of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). The songs in the background were traditional Dutch sing-along tunes (if you know the words - otherwise, they would just be "tunes"), and Sinterklaas himself came by each table.
He said you can ask him anything at all. Anything? Anything, he assured. I figured now would be a good time to ask why men have nipples. He was clearly not prepared for this question.
Dinner consisted of an amazing wild ragout pancake, basically a wild game stew on the best pancake you've ever had. Dessert? I was too full. Which I guess means another visit is in order.
*Note - for those of you interested in reading more about Christmas traditions around the globe, check out this site after December 17th (or now, for other good reading) - my fellow Lonely Planet bloggers will have some great stuff for you.