09 Dec 2022

More than 600 exchange students are joining Radboud University this year. English Literature student Holly Hartley from the University of Exeter is one of them. For the upcoming semester, she is going to participate in a letter exchange, discussing her experience in Nijmegen with Julia Vosmeijer, an English Language and Culture student from Radboud who is going to do an exchange in Holly's home county, Kent.

Dear Julia,

I am writing to you after experiencing my first Sinterklaas! It feels strange celebrating something so ‘Christmassy’ earlier than I’m used to, but I had an amazing time trying out all the different traditions. I attended a present-swap and games night hosted by Erasmus Student Network (ESN), tried pepernoten for the first time and sang along as best I could to a few Dutch children’s songs. I hope you were able to bring some Sinterklaas magic to Canterbury, but I’m sure it must have felt strange being away from family.

We don’t celebrate Sinterklaas in the UK, but we do have ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ or ‘Bonfire Night’ at the beginning of November. It is essentially a commemoration of a failed, historical terrorist plot – so way less wholesome than Sinterklaas in the Netherlands and also a bit weird, now that I think about it. The tradition started when the Protestant monarch James I and his parliament became the targets of a plan to reinstate a Catholic monarchy in England. Guy Fawkes, a conspirator in this ‘Gunpowder Plot’, was captured while guarding explosives hidden beneath the House of Lords.

When his plan was foiled, people lit bonfires in celebration, and a few months later, this event was made a national holiday. Nowadays, the celebration features elaborate firework displays and huge fires which often feature a burning effigy of Fawkes’ himself. But celebrations vary all over the UK. For example, my personal favourite is the ‘Flaming Tar Barrels’ in Ottery St Mary. It is exactly what it sounds like. Flaming tar barrels in the midst of a crowd of people!

It was strange seeing all my friends’ social media posts from this event whilst I was miles away from home, if I’m being honest. But this year is all about trying new things – and for me, swapping Bonfire Night for Sinterklaas seems like a pretty good bargain. I feel so grateful to have made so many new friends who have shown me the ropes and made my first Sinterklaas truly memorable – even if I butchered most of the words to their favourite traditional songs. I was worried I would feel overwhelmed, but I actually feel even more festive than usual, and I can’t wait to introduce some of the traditions to my family when I return home for Christmas.

But for now, I’m off to go search for some leftover speculaas!

I look forward to your next letter!

Holly x

Read Holly Hartley's blogs here

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