Tag Archives: christmas

Christmas cheer and fear (part 2)

2 Dec

E and ZP

Just when you thought Father Christmas was scary enough, along trots Zwarte Piet with a handful of sweeties. But what’s worse is that he tags along with Santa. Double trouble. Lock up your reindeer.

Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is a familiar character in the Sinterklaas celebrations in early December in the Netherlands and Belgium. Tradition has it that Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) arrives on a boat from Spain (like Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas dreams of, he has clearly ended up in a sunny ex-pat community) bringing with him a mischievous Moorish companion, Zwarte Piet. Piet ably assists Sinterklaas in deciding who has been nice and who has been naughty and, dressed in his colourful pantaloon and feathered cap, he looks very much the clownish companion of his sharper suited and bearded boss.

Nothing wrong in that you might think. A long-standing tradition from the 19th century. Harmless fun. You might be feeling some warmth towards Zwarte Piet already, imagining him darning Santa’s socks after a long day’s sleigh ride (or boat ride in this case). Gently brushing the snow from Santa’s beard. Bringing him a brandy. Nothing there that could be remotely unsettling for an adult or child. Right? We like a bit of history, a bit of colour. Would you like to meet Piet in his full glory?

ZP

This is the Zwarte Piet that you will see striding through the streets of Holland in the run up to Christmas, handing out sweets to children. He is also a staple feature of the decorations adorning shops and streets, as ubiquitous as the Christmas robin or reindeer. My first reaction on seeing Zwarte Pieten in the flesh in Holland was “Seriously? They’re blacked-up? In afro wigs? You’re kidding, right?” Coming from the UK where the Black and White Minstrels were given short shrift some time ago and assigned to the pile of once embraced characters now branded ‘politically incorrect’, Zwarte Piet made my PC alarm ring louder than the herald angels sing. To the non-local eye, he is an anachronism from a time when being sensitive to racial background simply wasn’t a consideration.

Opinion about Zwarte Piet is divided, even in Holland, with those complaining that the tradition is racist often being accused of trying to spoil was is just a bit of historically rooted, seasonal fun. Political correctness aside (hard as it is), what is obvious is that Zwarte Piet has the potential to scare the Christmas cheer out of small children like a festive Papa Lazarou. Our host in Holland (the very lovely Bee and Barlie’s Books) has, as a resident, been subjected to Piet overload. She describes how her daughter was left traumatised after a troop of “beyond black … and very, very tall” Zwarte Pieten visited the local school – “She came out and just jumped pretty much up onto my chest. Last time I saw her like that was Halloween”. That sounds like great Christmas fun. Of course there are exceptions. My 4-year-old was more than happy to meet someone who so filled her hands with sweets that she had to steer her scooter using her wrists.

Zwarte Piet is an unsettling character on several levels and makes any jitters about a scary Santa pale in comparison (if you’ll pardon the pun). Both are in the tradition of the grotesque characters that pepper our folklore and history and show that there’s nothing we like more then to be a little bit scared, even at the merriest time of the year. So deck your halls and rest ye merry but remember to bolt the door and block the chimney.

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Christmas cheer and fear (part 1)

28 Nov

The world of children’s stories is a mixed up place when you put Kipper back on the bookshelf and pick up the traditional fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. There is a sinister side to these stories that starts to fill a child’s world with bogeymen, wicked witches and monsters lurking under the bed. Christmas is not so different. A bold statement perhaps (*puts tongue in cheek*) and certainly not in the accepted spirit of things. Is Christmas all about cheer or does it, like many traditions and stories, have a darker, scarier side?

As a child I was afraid of Father Christmas. I was fully signed up to the idea that he was the jolly fella who would arrive laden with gifts, but there was still no way I was letting a strange man into my room in the middle of the night. In the dark. When everyone was asleep. Well, would you when it’s put that way? No, no, no – it was a step too far for the shy child that I was. What if he was the child catcher in disguise? Or the Pied Piper? What if he had elves with him? My Christmas stocking stayed firmly hung on the outside of my bedroom door and never once graced the end of my bed.

Father Christmas may bring presents with a hearty “ho, ho, ho” but he is also big, fat and hairy. To a child he must seem enormous and, wearing his peculiar clothes, must beggar the question in their fragile minds: “who is this huge, red, scary monster man?” Worst of all, he is over familiar – he even wants you to sit on his knee (well, he did in the innocent days when CRB checking Santa would have been like asking the Queen for a form of ID). He’s the Werther’s Original Grandpa on speed. Observe the Santa Effect in action in the photograph below. This was taken at my daughter’s first (conscious) visit to the Big Man aged 14 months:

Note the school masterly look on Santa’s face then note the look of sheer terror on my daughter’s. Oh yes, and look at Mummy laughing nervously as she tries to enforce the Christmas cheer, only managing to worsen the Christmas fear by shoving her dear daughter closer to the object causing the anxiety. It won’t stop me doing it again. My 20-month-old son has his first visit to Santa lined up. I know what his reaction will be but, dammit, it is Christmas (and a photo opportunity).

And what do we do as parents to help this fear? Nothing. We make it worse. As soon as the first bauble hits the shops in August, the threat of Father Christmas and his all-seeing eye becomes the parents’ weapon of choice. Who needs bribery when the prospect of a lump of coal can be wielded in the face of a screaming child flailing around on a supermarket floor? So much for putting the fear of God into someone, this is the fear of Santa. (Gosh, I’ve associated Christmas with religion there – that can’t be right, surely?)

So can Christmas get much scarier? You bet it can. In Part 2 of this post you will meet a character who is so very wrong on many levels … Zwarte Piet.

The mat leave blues

15 Dec

I love Christmas but this year it comes with a sprinkling of sadness. I know that once we’re into the new year it will be a slippery slope towards resuming life as a commuter and office monkey. When I started my maternity leave last February, the year ahead stretched itself out so long and gloriously that going back to work seemed too far away to be real.

Where have the last few months gone? How did a chubby, flailing bundle become a sparky 8-month-old who can go like billy-o if there’s a wire or plug to be had? If I ask myself what I’ve done since February I CAN’T REMEMBER. I must’ve done something to fill the days. I didn’t have lie-ins, ‘sleep when baby slept’, or watch more than a couple of episodes of Diagnosis Murder. (Oh Dick van D, you no longer remind me of chimneys but instead invoke the aroma of cheese on toast and the heady days of maternity leave.) I suspect 99.9% of my time was spent doing the following:

  • Being pinned to the sofa by a ravenous breastfeeding baby and then being too scared to move once he’d fallen asleep (at the same time as burning the batteries on my phone checking Facebook and email or tweeting – and never quite managing to reach for that pile of books I could’ve been working my way through).
  • Talking about babies with other parents, including good old percentile competition. (He’s on the 99th percentile don’t you know?)
  • Eyeing up other mums at baby groups and classes and generally feeling inadequate.
  • Eating cake.
  • Eating biscuits.
  • Retaining my baby fat (see two points above).
  • Trying to come up with a Dragons’ Den idea that’ll make my fortune before I’m due back at work.

I’ve performed magnificently in most of these areas. The last point is the only one I’ve been tremendously unsuccessful at. Sigh.

To be honest, I am finding it really hard to come to terms with this special time drawing to a close. I’m not planning a third child (Mr C&P has other ideas) so I’ve wanted to treasure every moment of these past few months. And this is where I feel I’ve failed. I could have spent less time being peeved about the lack of sleep, or worrying about what wasn’t getting done whilst I was in the midst of a mammoth two-hour feeding session, or panicking that other mothers were doing so much more with their babies. In reality I’m not sure I could have done it differently, after all those first few months are all about survival. I’ve decided not to beat myself up about yet something else but instead give myself a swift kick up the arse, treasure all the bits I can remember through the hormone-filled haze and look forward to all that is to come.

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