A Curacao Christmas

Moving to the former Dutch colony of Curacao in February 1983, I wasn't thinking about Christmas. Or Hanukah which was what we celebrated.

Why would I? That was eons away, or so it seemed. But I quickly learned from my fellow expatriates on the island, a place where few things are manufactured, that everything had to be brought in by boat. What you saw in the ubiquitous small shops today, would often be gone tomorrow.

Island living meant learning to buy when you saw it, or just do without. Including foodstuffs. So grocery lists were more like 'wish lists'. And no, though we were an island--there were no fresh fish. Something I later learned in my scuba class had to do with different sea waters.

So with limited food selections, toys seemed like the least of my problem. I was more concerned with getting fresh pasteurized milk (not available, so my son grew up on liters of UHT milk) and fresh vegetables. The broccoli on our stores' shelves was brown to start and only got browner, and more rotten.download

By the fall of 1983 when our daughter went back to school, I had apparently forgotten this lesson in relation to the approaching holidays of December. So when I saw piles of pink and blue ribboned bicycles tied up outside every shop on the island, I wondered. What that about? Christmas was months away.

Someone eventually told me how the December holidays were celebrated on the island, traditions inherited from the island's colonizer, Mother Holland (as it was known locally). Apparently it's Sinterklaas who brings children their presents on the evening of his name day, December 6th.  Sinterklaas was an anorexic version of the jolly fat fellow Santa Claus, who came with helpers called Zwarte Pietens (black Peters) usually played by white men in black face. I was speechless. How did that work on an island that was about 95% black?

But given even my Jewish community celebrated Sinterklaas, we did too.

So in the middle of November Sinterklaas came by boat to the capital city of Willemstad. With a population at the time of about 150,000 on Curacao, you'd think every single citizen was there, and maybe they were. It was jammed. After arrival there would be Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pietens at school, along with our children singing in Dutch.

As for Christmas, everyone on the island knew that it was a religious holiday focused on church and family dinner. Since we didn't do that, we went to the empty beaches on December 25th, startled at the idea that we were at a beach rather that drinking hot chocolate back home in America.

And every year the expats would laugh merrily to imagine the holiday cards sent back home, some with sand from the beach inside to remind friends and family that we really did live on a Caribbean island.



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    Candace Drimmer

    I was an accidental expatriate; love and marriage led me to it. One day I was a bandy-legged kid sitting atop my dogwood tree looking out of my small backyard world in 1950s New Jersey, wanting to move somewhere--anywhere, different. Next thing I knew my father had accepted a job in Houston TX. I was ecstatic, it was a foreign land in 1961 America. After high school graduation, my parents’ gave me a matched set of fawn-colored hardsided American Tourister luggage. Taking the hint, I went to college; well four colleges in five years--it was the 60s after all. Meeting a young hirsute anti-war, soon-to-be-Peace Corps volunteer, I fell in love. After finishing up college coursework for my degree, but before I even walking a graduation stage, I grabbed the paper airline ticket my boyfriend had sent me, my brand-new passport, and was off to the airport and Lima, Peru.

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