MU blogger Elisabeth Koopal

How holidays bring us together

From Halloween to Sinterklaas: how holidays bring us together

Introduction

During my exchange in Maynooth, I celebrated the Irish festival of Halloween, as well as Sinterklaas; a traditional Dutch holiday. Partaking in various celebrations, I saw how holidays bring people together, both within and across cultures. In my inaugural blog post, I’m going to tell you more about these holidays and my experience celebrating them in Ireland.

Halloween: an ancient Irish holiday

Halloween – Oíche Shamhna in Irish – is celebrated across the globe, but few people know that this fright-filled holiday originated in Ireland. Over 2,000 years ago, Celts celebrated the festival of Samhain on the 31st of October. They believed that on this night, the boundaries between different realms dissolved, allowing spirits to pass into our world. To appease good spirits and keep evil ones at bay, the Celts lit bonfires, left offerings, wore disguises, and carved turnips. Over time, these rituals transformed into the Halloween traditions we know now: giving out sweets, wearing costumes, and carving pumpkins. As Halloween is not celebrated in the Netherlands, I participated in this holiday for the first time. I shared in two contrasting celebrations: a traditional party with my host family and clubbing with my friends in Dublin.

Halloween with my host family 

The family I lived with during my exchange introduced me to Irish Halloween traditions when they threw a party for their children and their friends. I accompanied the children during trick-or-treating. Dressed up as fairies, game characters, and sporters, they went from door to door to receive sweets. Many houses were creepily decorated and people lit fireworks in the distance. Back at the house, we ate different pumpkin dishes and barmbrack, which I had baked. Barmbrack is a fruit bread with items hidden inside, like a ring. Whoever finds the ring in their slice of barmbrack is said to get married next year. After dinner, the children played traditional Halloween games, like eating a doughnut from a string and a variant on ‘floury grape’, a game whereby people try to remove flour from a mound with a grape on top, without dropping the grape. The children were thrilled, and I had a great time learning about Halloween traditions.

Halloween with Maynooth’s Erasmus Student Network

Throughout October, Maynooth’s Erasmus Student Network (ESN) organised several Halloween-themed events for exchange students, like weekly film screenings and a pub quiz. Leah, the president of ESN Maynooth, says it’s important for them to share Halloween with international students as it’s part of Irish culture. “It’s also about spending time with family and friends, and ESN is like a family,” she says. Like many Irish children growing up, Leah would attend a Halloween party at school, wear a costume, play games, and eat barmbrack and curly kale. Now she’s older, she goes out partying with Halloween. Aside from ESN’s events, Leah recommends international students to attend Halloween events organised by their local community. 

In addition to the events in Maynooth, I celebrated Halloween by going out in Dublin with the other ESN committee members as a team bonding night. Dressed as a devil, cowboy, the little mermaid, and others, we went to Wetherspoons and Dicey’s Garden Club. It was one of the best nights of my exchange, that I’ll be thinking back on every October 31st.

Sinterklaas: the most important Dutch holiday

I also celebrated Sinterklaas: a Dutch holiday honouring the birthday of Saint Nicolas, who is commonly referred to as ‘Sinterklaas’. The festivities start when Sinterklaas and his cheerful helpers arrive in the Netherlands in November. It concludes on December 5th with pakjesavond (parcel’s eve). The celebration includes gift-giving, writing each other poetry, singing Sinterklaas songs, and eating lots of special treats. Sinterklaas is one of the Netherlands’ main holidays and forms an important part of our national identity. As this holiday is traditionally celebrated with family, I was initially disappointed I couldn’t spend December 5th at home. However, I found a way to celebrate Sinterklaas in Ireland with both Dutch and Irish people.

Connecting with Dublin’s Dutch community 

Volunteering at De Madelief gave me the opportunity to celebrate Sinterklaas with the Dutch community in Dublin. De Madelief offers weekly Dutch language and cultural classes to children who are (partially) Dutch or have lived in the Netherlands. This allows them to stay in touch with their Dutch family and possibly (re-)migrate to the Netherlands later in life. 

Before dawn, teachers and volunteers gathered to prepare for the celebration. We put on costumes, wigs, and make-up to transform into Sinterklaas and his helpers. We were then received by singing children, accompanied by their parents and older siblings. The Deputy Ambassador of the Embassy of the Netherlands gave a speech. Afterwards, we visited the classrooms. Every class had prepared a game or performance related to the Dutch language. I was impressed by the children’s language skills; effortlessly they switched between perfect Dutch and English. Sinterklaas then spoke to each child about their experiences and achievements of the past year, and they all received treats and gifts. It was heartwarming to see the children’s excitement. 

Even more so, I enjoyed connecting with the local Dutch community. They are strongly integrated into Irish society, but maintain their Dutch identity. De Madelief plays an important part in this, as the school brings together Dutch families across Dublin. While the Dutch community is small and relatively new, this has laid the foundation for a future in Ireland.

Sinterklaas at Maynooth University 

There were two Sinterklaas celebrations at the university. One was organised by my friend Manon, an Erasmus student from the Netherlands who teaches a Dutch language class. Dutch is offered as an elective to students majoring in German, all of whom are Irish. Several students from the Netherlands joined the celebration. We did Sinterklaas-themed language exercises, like bingo with Dutch numbers. There were plenty of Sinterklaas treats, such as letter-shaped chocolates and kruidnoten (tiny spiced cookies), and we listened to Sinterklaas songs. 

I also attended the Sinterklaas/St. Nikolaus Tag quiz organised by Deutsch Soc, the German society. In Germany, Sinterklaas is known as St. Nikolaus Tag. Adrian, the public relations officer of Deutsch Soc, decided to incorporate both the German and Dutch traditions into this celebration as they are similar. Adrian majors in German and studies Dutch in Manon’s class. He told me he had never heard of Sinterklaas before, but learned a lot about Dutch holidays in his class. “Through engaging with Sinterklaas, my appreciation for the language grew and I’m more motivated to continue studying Dutch,” Adrian says.

Sinterklaas in a Dutch-Irish family 

German and French language student Harry attended both Sinterklaas celebrations at the university. He is half-Irish and half-Dutch (fun fact: his father was Sinterklaas at De Madelief). Living in Ireland, his family had to put in a lot of effort to celebrate Sinterklaas, as his parents had to order all the treats from the Netherlands. On pakjesavond, Harry and his siblings would sing Sinterklaas songs while his father played piano. Then they would receive gifts and a letter from Sinterklaas. Harry says his favourite parts of Sinterklaas are “the singing, the treats, and the gezelligheid” [the convivial and cosy atmosphere]. Although his family hasn’t celebrated Sinterklaas in recent years, he was positively surprised when he heard about the celebrations at university. “I believe you’re never too old to learn about Sinterklaas, as long you’re interested,” Harry says.

Conclusion

Holidays are a great opportunity to reconnect with your roots and to share your traditions with others. I enjoyed introducing Sinterklaas to Irish students and loved celebrating Halloween with them. I encourage all exchange students to take part in Irish traditions and to introduce their own celebrations to Maynooth’s diverse student community. Happy holidays!

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