The Magic of Sinterklaas

Earlier in the fall I asked readers for submissions on Christmas traditions around the world. I am delighted to offer you this post on Sinterklaas by Annelies Kanis who wrote the popular post The Trunk That Traveled the World.

Bright December moon is beaming

boys and girls now stop your play

for tonight’s the wondrous evening

eve of good St. Nicholas day

There is nothing quite like the magic of Saint Nicolas. Or as we say, Sinterklaas.

Nederlands: Sinterklaas tijdens het Het Feest ...

Saint Nicolas was a Turkish Saint from the 4th Century A.D. In the Netherlands we celebrate Sinterklaas on the evening before his name day, which is December 6th. The original Saint Nicolas had a reputation for secret gift giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out. And as it goes with legends, the legend of Saint Nicolas got bigger and bigger and somehow turned into the very typical Dutch Sinterklaas celebration that it is today, with elements added on and left behind as we went along. So why is this tradition described in Marilyn’s blog series of Christmas traditions? Sinterklaas is at the root of another tradition,  the Christmas-related tradition of Santa Claus.

The build up for Sinterklaas starts halfway November when Sinterklaas arrives on his steamboat from Spain. The local mayor will welcome him with an appropriate ceremony (he is after all, a Saint). Sinterklaas comes with his helpers, Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) He is a very wise man who knows all the children in the country by name, and he brings them gifts. When you leave your shoe out and sing by it, he’ll notice and give you a small gift by sending his helpers down the chimney. Not during the day, but when you’re asleep at night, when he travels over rooftops with his horse Amerigo and his helpers. The big celebration is December 5th, when he brings more gifts to families gathered together.

The magical thing about this feast is that all children really believe he exists. It’s a belief stronger and more convinced than the belief in Santa Claus, and it lasts longer. All adults help children believe. For example: Sinterklaas pays a visit to all the Dutch embassies on December 5th. In Islamabad, he used to arrive by tonga (horse-drawn carriage).

Usually kids start asking questions about how it works when they’re around 7 or 8. My eldest son is 7, and I’m dreading the day he doesn’t believe anymore and the magic partly disappears.

But until he and after him his little brother stop believing, we’ll help keep the magic alive. On December 5th, my parents and sister with her family will come to our house. They’ll bring gifts that they’ll smuggle up to the attic. Not just gifts for the kids, but also gifts for the adult whose name you’ve pulled out of a hat. Or more recently, the person that the online tool has picked for you.

We’ll sing Sinterklaas songs, eat traditional candy and Sinterklaas or his helpers will knock on the door and leave gifts behind. He’ll move on to the next house really quickly, because he has to pay many visits. We’ve never really seen him, but my kids say they’ve seen shadows of his helpers on the roof.

But here’s what I love most about Sinterklaas. Gifts, even though they can be well thought out, are in the end easy to purchase (especially online). The attached self-written poem is one of the things that makes this holiday special. We add a poem to at least one of the gifts, in rhyme. The poem is supposedly written by Sinterklaas and his helpers, and reflects on the past year. It can be sweet and loving, but it can also be about specific character traits that you don’t want to address directly and want to tease someone with. The poem is  a great way to reflect on the year behind and it takes time to write a good poem – more time than to shop for gifts. When time is precious, the poem is a gift of attention, of really thinking about the person you’re writing for, what they’ve experienced and who they are.

Advent for me starts after Sinterklaas. Advent and Christmas hold many traditions of their own, enough to fill another blog. But by giving gifts with poems at Sinterklaas (and leaving them out at Christmas), Advent and Christmas are more focused on light that Christmas brings.

Hospice Care – Quality Care at the End of Life

In an appropriate follow-up to yesterday’s post, Jan Klingberg takes us into the realities of hospice care. Hospice care is often misunderstood and I’m grateful to Jan for giving us first hand information about this important service. 

Kristine’s husband, Gerry, returned home from the hospital with end-stage cancer after his doctor bluntly told him to get his affairs in order. The family panicked. How would they manage? Especially with twin preschoolers at home.

During many years as a communications and fundraising professional for a hospice program in Illinois, I have seen firsthand the challenges of life-threatening illness—for the patient and family alike. When treatment becomes futile at best, hope for a cure disappears and hopelessness can set in.

But what if instead of being hooked up to machines in the hospital or going it alone at home, your loved one could be cared for in a program that would reawaken hope—a hope for comfort, peace and dignity …

  • Encircle you and your loved one with care and support tailored to your needs,
  • Arrange for the delivery of a hospital bed, supplies and medication,
  • Visit your loved one regularly to provide medical care and other treatment to ease pain and discomfort,
  • Be at the other end of the phone 24 hours a day, and
  • Support you when your loved one is dying and for months afterward.

Our hospice program became Kristine and Gerry’s lifeline that made their last weeks together bearable. A team of professionals and volunteers surrounded the family with a multitude of services and strong support. Medical care addressed Gerry’s pain; counselors helped Kristine journey through her despair over losing her husband; social workers helped the extended family work through some tough issues; volunteers ran errands and shared babysitting shifts; experts in children’s grief worked with the twins and coached Kristine. And even when Gerry’s pain soared out of control at home, he was able to spend a few nights at our specialized hospice inpatient unit where 24-hour nursing care helped stabilize him.

Were the family’s last weeks together easy? Of course not. But they were transformed into a manageable journey that allowed Gerry to die comfortably at home, his wife and kids at his side. He was reassured to know that after his death, Kristine and the twins would be carried through their grief rather than being left alone with their terrible loss.

In the years prior to my retirement last fall, I became aware of many stories similar to Kristine and Gerry’s. The overwhelming emotion of family members after the death of their loved one was gratitude—for providing support and restoring hope. And I don’t believe I ever heard anyone say, “We called hospice too soon.” If anything, many were disappointed that they had waited too long before engaging a care system that could surround them and their loved one with what they needed to live life to the fullest in the time that remained.

Hospice has been a lifeline to thousands of people around the world for decades. The modern hospice concept actually got its start in the late 1960s in England where specialized care for the dying showed dramatic improvement in symptom control. This new unique blend of medical, emotional, spiritual and psychosocial care—palliative care—comprehensively treats the person rather than solely the medical condition.

Then amid the phenomenal medical advances of the 1970s, dedicated healthcare professionals and community volunteers in the U.S. saw the need stateside for an interdisciplinary and compassionate approach to end-of-life care. From the first U.S. hospice program in 1974 to the current 5,000+ programs nationwide, hospice professionals have relieved pain and suffering day after day, year after year. My own family—mom, dad, aunt—were cared for by hospice programs in other states. Though they operate slightly differently from the one I worked for, they have the same core belief that drives the care they provide—everyone has the right to live with dignity until the last moment.

A long-time friend—a control freak who lived alone and had every loose end tied up—said when she became one of our patients and entrusted her care to my colleagues, “It is such a relief knowing that I don’t have to manage alone anymore. These people know what they are doing … they’re the pros.”

When a loved one has a life-threatening illness and the prognosis becomes months and not years … when the goal for care becomes comfort and symptom management … why not choose the hospice experts who promote quality of life until the very end of life?

AUTHOR’S NOTES:

  • The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) has a wealth of information about hospice care and can help you find a program near you.
  • The NHPCO service, Caring Connections, offers resources for advance care planning, caregiving and living with a serious illness.
  • A high percentage of hospice programs are certified by Medicare. This means that they have core services provided by a hospice team (physicians, nurses, nurse’s aides, social workers, grief counselors, chaplains and volunteers) and can receive reimbursement for the care of a patient who has Medicare Part A. Many private insurance companies and state Medicaid programs have modeled their payment systems after the Medicare Hospice Benefit, so the costs of care are covered for most patients who are eligible for hospice.

When Following Jesus Is a One Way Trip

I met Deanna Davis through blogging, and it was an immediate TCK connection. Deanna writes with honesty and clarity about her faith and her life as a TCK/ATCK. I think you’ll love this piece by her: “When Following Jesus is a One Way Trip”. There is more information about Deanna at the end of the post along with a link to her blog. Enjoy!

While living in Germany for several years, I was painfully aware of the fact that I wasn’t German.

Us at the airport in Leipzig in 2008, saying goodbye to more than just our friends.

If the language and culture were not daily reminders for me, then the Germans certainly were. It isn’t that my German friends didn’t genuinely love and value me. I know they did. But one of them let a revealing Freudian slip pass once that marked me. I forget the context of the conversation, but at some point she said, “Well, you know Deanna, when we (meaning Germans) talk about you…”.

I’m sure the dot dot dots were positive. And I guess I should be flattered that people cared enough to make me a subject of conversation. But all I heard was, “You guys talk about me? When I’m not there?” The meaning was clear. They were German, and when the Germans got together, I wasn’t one of them. I was the American on the outside. I didn’t really belong. Not like the Germans did anyway.

This wasn’t unexpected. Of course in my head I knew I wasn’t German. It’s just that I had made such a tremendous effort and so many sacrifices to try to fit in. It broke my heart to realize the place I’d called home for the last few years wasn’t really home.

Then there was the time we were back in the States over the holidays for the first time in years, sitting in our big-suburban-cookie-cutter church’s Sunday morning extravaganza. And I knew in that moment, in fact, I think my heart even used these words, “This isn’t home anymore”. The styles, the themes, the subjects of conversation. None of it spoke to me. The connecting points were gone and I remember feeling so out-of-place that I wept. My home wasn’t home anymore.

It was an “Oh cr@p!” moment for me. Was this what Jesus had asked me to give up as I followed Him overseas? I didn’t belong in Germany – and now I didn’t belong in the states either.

Had following Jesus made me homeless?

I can see now it was one of the unexpected costs of following Jesus. What before had been comfortable, normal and “mine” was no longer so. He had changed me. Changed my heart, the things I like, the things I got emotional about, the things I wanted to talk about, the relationships that anchored me, the very definition of words in my heart like home, success, normal, enough. I wasn’t the same person who had left America with Jesus a few years earlier. I had returned quite different – with more of Jesus and less of me. Not American. Not German. Homeless. And there was no going back.

I am coming to realize that sometimes following Jesus is a “forward-only” proposition. It is a one way trip. I can never again be the person I once was. I can never fully return to the relationships I had.  What used to satisfy or make me happy doesn’t anymore. And it has taken me the last 3 years to figure out something of what this means in my life.

It means that Jesus loves me too much to let me remain unchanged as I followed Him.  He loves me too much to let me return to the “me” I was before He and I started walking together. And we are never going back.

Deanna Davis is an ATCK (Adult Third Culture Kid) who grew up in a military family and lived and traveled around the globe. She is also a writer and blogger interested in the intersections between the eternal and the now. You can read more of her work at Intersections, her personal blog. The quote below gives a little glimpse into what she loves!

“If I could do anything I wanted with a day I’d spend most of it walking through a really beautiful place, reading something intellectually challenging, eating something spicy and then talking it over with someone I love.”

Altering Body and Soul – A Guest Post

Blogger’s Note: Daily as I take the subway home I  see a little boy with brown-rimmed glasses walking with an older woman. He seems tiny for his age, oblivious to the adults around him, much the same as other children. The thing that distinguishes this child from others is the tube that comes out from under his shirt, stretching around his tiny tummy to his back and attached to a quart-sized bag. The bag usually has a bit of greenish brown liquid in it. I don’t know him, and I don’t know his situation but I do know that he is already living life differently than his peers. He lives with an altered body.

He is not alone — this essay by my cousin Janice Klingberg takes us into her world of living with an altered body.

More than 35 years ago, I made an irreversible decision that was to impact my life more than I really knew at the time.

I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at the age of 15 but tried to participate in school and other activities as a normal teenager despite the physical discomfort and perpetual worry about accidents. Living through my teens and into my 20s was challenging, but I was relatively good, I thought, at hiding the impact of my illness.

I was grateful that in so many ways my life took an ordinary path—college, teaching career, marriage and children. Despite this, after our younger son was born in 1974 my colitis went wild, in part because of uncertainty about his health. I couldn’t ignore this exacerbation or my new understanding that years more with the chronic condition would make me more vulnerable to malignancies—read that, cancer of the colon. Years earlier, though advised that I might want to consider surgical removal of the colon (total colectomy), I was not emotionally ready to take that major step. By 1975 I was almost relieved when I made the decision to move forward with the surgery and live the rest of my life with an ileostomy—an opening (stoma) on my abdomen through which feces is diverted.

After my recovery and with the loving support of my husband, I was determined to continue living well, but this time without pain or anxiety about toilet facilities. I’ve had to deal with other issues related to my redirected plumbing, but overall, I have been a much healthier person than I ever was before my initial surgery.

I have now lived with an ileostomy longer than I lived without one, and though it’s part of who I am, it does not define me. I have shared my journey with others facing the surgery in the same way people helped me wrap my brain around its long-term impact.

One of those individuals, a young woman my age, helped rid me of fears that I wouldn’t be able wear attractive clothing again and  suggested lifestyle changes that would make it easier for me to live with an ileostomy, something that was daunting for a 30-year-old.

Surgery where the body is altered has life-changing potential.

There were unexpected and positive side effects. The entire experience helped to refine my vocational direction– I knew that I wanted to be involved in something that would make life better for others and add meaning to my own life. Stewardship of my God-given skills and talents became even more important to me, so I plunged into the nonprofit communications and fundraising arena. Many dedicated professionals challenged and energized me over the years as we worked together to improve the quality of life for thousands of people.

However imperfectly I contributed to those efforts, I am grateful to have had many opportunities to be part of something bigger than myself; something that brings satisfaction and meaning to my soul.

We live in a world where body image is often skewed and the temptation to define ourselves based on our physical features is strong. As I look back I am grateful to be able to bear witness that life has gone on—indeed, even improved and become more meaningful—after the initial shock of waking up from surgery with my altered body.

Guest Post at Tamara Out Loud – Unfair Grace

Today I have the privilege of guest-posting at Tamara Out Loud: Thoughts on Real Life and Real Faith. I am honored for a couple of reasons. The first is that Tamara is one of the best writers I know. At times she puts together words and thoughts in ways that go straight to your heart and work their way into your soul; at other times she is laugh out loud funny with an irreverent humor. The second is that Tamara is editor of the upcoming book What a Woman is Worth. This is a book that will be released sometime this summer and I have the honor of being a contributor to the book. I’ll be writing more on that in a future post but right now take a look at the beginning of the post and wander over to Tamara’s blog to read the rest!

Unfair Grace

“I read Ann Voskamp’s book” pause “And I was thankful for a few days”

This came from my friend as we recently sat together drinking free coffee from an inn on the rocky coast of the Atlantic Ocean. The inn thought we were guests – they offered us both the coffee and cookies embossed with a cursive E, (“Signature cookies!” we were told with a smile) free with no questions asked.  A good lesson that there is free lunch if you walk with confidence.

We both laughed at her statement about the well-read and loved book “One Thousand Gifts”, for reading a book is one thing and working out the details of the challenges presented within is completely different.

Whenever I get together with this friend we go for the jugular vein of faith conversation. We don’t waste time or words. Both of us are in something of a waste land when it comes to friends who share our faith so we go deep. Quickly. The conversation was like rapid gun fire going from head to heart, from  gratitude to grace. And there is where we stopped and struggled. You can read the rest of this post at http://tamaraoutloud.com/2012/06/07/guest-post-unfair-grace/

Best Before [d.a.te]

I have come to both love and rely on Robynn Bliss as a regular contributor to this blog. Those of you who read regularly will recognize her – those who have just begun are in for a treat. Enjoy this Guest Post from Robynn Bliss

I’m about to turn forty-two. The last 3 or 4 weeks I’ve started to hurt in odd places. The top of my spine, bottom of my neck is really sore. My right knee is suddenly aching. The elbow and wrist on my right arm are also giving me grief. How did this happen?

Up until a year ago I was in really good health. In fact last year my annual physical was the day before my 41st birthday. The doctor, a friend of mine, quizzed me on the usual. I had nothing remarkable to report. I was doing well. She did note that my blood pressure was elevated. That seemed strange to me. She ordered some blood work to check my cholesterol levels among other invisible ills. A few days later the nurse called me to inform me that my cholesterol was also high. What??! I had been perfectly healthy and now my blood pressure was up and so was my cholesterol!?

Since I turned 41 I’ve struggled with various aches and pains. It’s uncanny, really. It’s like I reached my “best before [date]” and now there’s no going back. I’m beginning to spoil. I’m beginning to rot.

I often take comfort in the reality that the houses we live in are really just tents. We are passing through. We are transients.  Recently a friend reminded me that these bodies of ours are also tents.  These bodies house our real selves. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not advocating gnosticism or even a Buddhist sense of detachment. We are wholly us. There is a mysterious connection between our bodies and our souls, between what we eat and how we feel, between head and shoulders, knees and toes and our hearts and sorrows, dreams and hopes. We are wonderfully knit together, an integrated pattern.

However there is a sense that the outer frame is wasting away. The tent rips, the poles rust, the pegs are lost.

In January my mother-in-law, Belva, turned 75. My mother in law has suffered for years from chronic facial pain. This particular disease is nicknamed “The Suicide Disease” because the pain is so intense and there’s no real hope of relief. It’s debilitating and yet she endures. And she never complains.  As I write this she is at the doctor’s office. They are trying a new thing. Somehow they’ll insert a pain blocking tool. I don’t understand at all how it’s supposed to work. I pray it does work. She needs relief.

I’m sure Belva felt years ago that she had passed her “best before [date]” too…. And yet though outwardly she’s been wasting away, inwardly she’s been renewed and equipped and graced with joy. She’s made choices that have kept her young. She’s learnt how to play piano in the last ten years, as a way to distract her brain from the pain that threatens to eat her sanity and peace of mind. She’s taken up the computer. She’s actively participated in a women’s bible study for years; finding solace in scripture and the comforts of the character of God. She’s enjoyed photography and has entered several competitions at the local fair.  Family celebrations are always out at the farm. Mom takes great delight in decorating the table for each occasion. This year she chose one of her granddaughters to do it with her. Next year she’ll choose another.  She’s passing on her love for beauty and space.

She has not allowed her pain to spoil her. Although on many days I’m sure she’s been tempted to give into it, to allow it to consume her, she has resisted those temptations with grace and courage. Her tent has failed her repeatedly but she continues on.

Our baby turned ten on the same day. Bronwynn is on the other end of life. Her tent is new and full of vitality. She has energy and enthusiasm for life and learning, for playing and pretending. Watching her invigorates me and fills me with hope.

I’m trying to resist the downward spiral. I’m trying to ignore the pains of age. I may be past that “best before date” but I’m trying to hope that the best is still before me. I’m not going to give into it. I want to be like my mother in law: brave and full of life, ready to try new things, engage new pursuits.

The tent maybe falling apart but I’m believing by faith that inside I’m being renewed every day.

Other posts by this author:

“I Stumble and I Fall” – the Poverty Challenge

For a long time I have wanted Cecily Thew Patterson to write a guest post for me. I first met Cecily when I returned to Pakistan with my husband and we were working at the boarding school I attended through high school. At the time Cecily was a pretty, outgoing girl who already had the marks of a strong woman. Cecily is now a beautiful and strong woman.  I hesitated asking her for a post because I know she has several writing projects going on, as well as many other hats to wear. But today I get to introduce you to Cecily and her writing as she takes us into a struggle many of us have – the poverty challenge. She shares personally and poignantly from the perspective of someone raised in Pakistan.

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Like Marilyn, I grew up in Pakistan. Like Marilyn, I also went to boarding school in the Himalayan mountains. And I’m guessing that I was like Marilyn in the way that all junior high kids resemble each other. We all have to work out who we are by facing challenges. Some will make us grow and fly and others will make us stumble and fall.

Clothes were the challenge that made me stumble and fall.

While none of us were wealthy, some people in our school did better than others in the clothes department. I felt like I always had trouble trying to look nice. There weren’t any western clothes shops in Pakistan, I didn’t have a lot of things sent out from Australia, so whatever I could get that was a bit fashionable was really precious to me. I couldn’t just replace a ripped shirt or update old shorts. I had to take care of my stuff. I really wanted to look nice and fit in so I tried hard.

The reason I was at boarding school was because my parents lived in the Sindh desert in a tiny village. There were no local schools for me to go to so my brothers and I went away to study. Even though our school was not in a well-to-do area of Pakistan, and there was plenty of poverty around us, it was still always a big shock when we went home to the village for our three-month winter holiday every year.

Pakistani Family (courtesy of Tim Irwin)

The poverty in rural Sindh is confronting. People are extremely poor, many living in traditional mud huts. There’s no power and no piped water and not much transport. Everything is done by hand. Some people my parents knew were so poor they couldn’t afford to eat more than twice a day. They didn’t even have any sugar for their tea.

Most people had two sets of clothes; one for every day and one for weddings. And because the weather was extremely hot for nine months of the year, many people didn’t have any clothes that would keep them warm in the winter.

It was a hard place to live. And I had a soft heart. I really wanted to help. It broke my heart to see people struggling so much when I had everything I needed and wanted. I really wanted to make a difference.

An opportunity came when we went out to a town called Mithi to visit some friends. This family had brought in a big load of second-hand jumpers and jackets and were going to give them out to a few specific villages that were really poor.

I was excited to be invited to join in. This was going to be my first real hands-on experience of helping people in dire need and I was feeling nervous but also a bit righteous at the same time.

Out we went one evening in the landrover to the villages. We gave out all the jumpers and sweaters. But then we realised there weren’t enough for everyone. Some people had to miss out.

And then someone tugged at my sleeve and pointed to my jumper. I didn’t speak her language but I knew what she was saying. “Can I have that jumper?” she asked with her expression and her body language.

I was shocked. I was wearing a turquoise sweatshirt that I loved. It had come from Australia, it was my favourite colour and it went with heaps of things. I only had six sweaters and this was my best one.

But the woman tugging at my sleeve was asking if she could have it. She had no sweatshirts and there were more people in her village who had none as well.

What would you have done? Would you have given her the jumper? Or would you have kept it?

Throughout junior high school I met a lot of challenges and many of them were opportunities for me to grow and fly. This woman, tugging at my sleeve, was the challenge that made me stumble and fall. Flat on my face.

I said no.

I gathered myself up and I moved into the landrover where she couldn’t reach me. I talked to myself and told myself that it was ok, that I couldn’t be expected to give up my own sweater, that if I had given it to her my mother would have been cross because she couldn’t have replaced it, that I needed it for school, and besides, it wouldn’t be good if I didn’t look after my own things. I told myself that the woman would be okay, that she was probably just a ‘taker’ and that she shouldn’t have asked.

I still wish, 25 years later, that I had taken off my turquoise sweatshirt and given it to the hungry, thin woman who asked me for it.

And I’m still struggling to know how to respond when I come face to face with real people who have bigger needs than I do. I wish I was more generous, but I’m scared of what might happen if I am. Pray for me.

How do you respond to poverty? How have you responded? It’s a hard but necessary conversation so join in through the comments.

Author Bio: Cecily Paterson is trying to live an uncluttered life, although she feels like she’s behind the eight-ball to begin with in having four children and a recalcitrant dog to feed and keep happy. Cecily is an author, most recently of Love, Tears & Autism, a memoir of the five years following her son’s diagnosis with autism. She’s a fan of honesty and candour and always tries to tell the truth. While she grew up in Pakistan, she’s very happy now to live in small town Australia and would prefer not to move for a long time. Cecily blogs at Cecily.Mostly. Check it out!