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Holiday Season Arrives The Holland American store in downtown Bellflower is a vestige of a different time, but it still celebrates the old Dutch ways. That was more than apparent Saturday, when families from across the Southland gathered at the barn-like structure to celebrate the legend of Sinterklaas, the Dutch St. Nicholas. Shoppers browsed through aisles of soup mix, sauces and spices, putting wheels of gouda cheese, boxes of chocolate sprinkles known as hagel and plastic bags of marzipan cakes into their carts. Dutch music was piped through the store. And tucked away in a corner, past rows of licorice sweets and porcelain windmills, 75-year-old Pete Haringsma sat in a chair, cheerfully posing for pictures with strangers. He had driven up from Leisure World in Seal Beach to don a white robe, red bishop's miter and cape and a fuzzy yellowed beard -- all to play the part of Sinterklaas, who, according to Dutch tradition, visits children each year on the eve of his birthday, Dec. 6, and leaves presents and food in their wooden shoes. Legend has it that in the 4th century, St. Nicholas, a bishop of Myra, in Turkey, saved his town from starvation, revived three dead children and paid for the dowries of poor girls. The bishop's saint day has long been marked by present-giving and celebration, but in the Netherlands, it has morphed into a nationwide celebration without religious overtones. The arrival by steamer of Sinterklaas and his Moorish companion, "Zwarte Piet," or Black Pete, from Spain, where the Dutch believe they live, is televised nationally. Each year, the Holland American store opens its holiday season in this community south of Los Angeles with the arrival of Sinterklaas and Piet, always on the weekend before the saint day. "It's a lot of fun," Haringsma said, which might explain why it was his ninth year in the role. Thirteen-year-old Monte Clark dressed up as Piet, wearing scruffy white Adidas sneakers over his green tights. A student at the Jefferson Leadership Academy in Long Beach, he sat on a stool near Haringsma. His mother, he said, works at the store; it was his third year playing Piet. The Holland American store has been at the same location on Artesia Boulevard for more than 60 years. When it opened, Bellflower was full of dairy farms, and was home to a thriving majority-Dutch population. These days, the store is one of the few indicators that that reality ever existed. Artesia Boulevard is now a crowded commercial zone of strip malls, fast-food restaurants and auto shops. And Bellflower has become home to scores of newer immigrants. Within the borders of the city's 90706 ZIP Code, 38 languages are spoken. The store did not try to adapt to the times by offering different, more diverse wares. Instead, it has become a draw for the Dutch families who moved away, a reason to return to Bellflower. Eight years ago, Chris Tseng bought the store. He became its fourth owner -- and the first who was not of Dutch descent. Still, said his father, Maurice, who lives across the street from the Holland American store, "we keep it very traditional. We celebrate the traditional activities every year. For Sinterklaas, we send out postcards and reminders." Indeed, many visitors to the store Saturday had come exclusively to see "Sint and Piet," as they are nicknamed, and by doing so, kept alive family customs. They drove from San Dimas, Redondo Beach, Fountain Valley and other places around the Southland, patiently waiting in line for their turn to plop a child, a baby, even a grandmother onto Sinterklaas' lap and then snap a picture. "We always come," said Allison Merriman, who was accompanied by her mother and 8-week-old son, Trent. She handed Trent to Haringsma and then stepped back to capture the moment with her digital camera. Merriman's mother, Jannie Rivera, who was born in Holland, stood by as all three of her grandsons took their turns with Sinterklaas. The holiday season is incomplete without Sinterklaas, she said. Twenty-four-year-old Mike Ly, who also grew up in Holland, brought his girlfriend and two siblings to have their pictures taken and pick up a few foods from his youth. "We had forgotten about this place," he said, until his sister found a business card in the bottom of a closet she was cleaning out. The day was not, however, without tears. Fifteen-month-old Aiden Desjardins started crying as soon as he was placed on Haringsma's lap. His grandmother, Olivia Gregory, reached in to chuck his chin and then snap a picture. Haringsma clucked under his beard. "He wasn't afraid last year," he said. He remembers the children from year to year? "Most of 'em, I do," he said with a grin. Alexander Snepvangers had been hovering nearby. The 3-year-old was celebrating Sinterklaas for the first time Saturday; he would go home later that night to put out his wooden shoes, said his mother, Mieke. The family had driven from Burbank, but Alexander seemed unwilling to get close enough to Sinterklaas to take a picture. Then, suddenly, he walked over, carefully approaching Haringsma. With one hand in his mouth, the other clutching a candy sucker, he leaned in close. His parents recorded the moment in pictures and video.

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