You’ve probably heard about 5 December, ‘Pakjesavond’, the celebratory night when families come together to receive gifts from Sinterklaas. This foreign tradition may be hard to get comfortable with, but what if we tell you that you can experience the highlights as a newcomer to the Netherlands and worry about the nuances and details later?
Learn the Traditions
Familiarize yourself with the Sinterklaas traditions, such as the arrival of Sinterklaas, the role of Pete – Sinterklaas’s helpers, and the exchange of gifts on ‘Pakjesavond’. It’s good to understand that this is ‘the Dutch Christmas’, a gift-giving party with a magical backstory that gets kids very excited.
Whilst Sinterklaas and Christmas share many similarities, it is good to note that it isn’t an official day off from work and school. On the contrary! Children go to school and celebrate the holiday there with their classmates. If they’re lucky, Sinterklaas himself might pay them a visit. Schools also host: ‘Pete gym’ and obstacle courses instead of P.E. classes, where kids practice balancing and climbing, just like Pete does when he is on roofs delivering gifts. If the kids do well, they receive a certificate signed by Sinterklaas. Get ready to submit their applications for the position of Pete when they are a bit older.
For parents accustomed to helping Santa, this is the time to take notes and pay close attention. Sinterklaas is a very busy man, and even though he has plenty of Pete’s on his payroll, he may need some help with gift shopping. Gifts are delivered by Sinterklaas and his Pete’s on the night of ‘Pakjesavond’, December 5th. It is a busy night, so Sinterklaas and his Pete’s aren’t able to come in and hand over the gifts themselves. They will, however, loudly knock or bang on the front door and ring the doorbell plenty of times to let you know they made their delivery.
Since ‘Pakjesavond’ is a busy night, Sinterklaas can’t be anywhere at the same time. He is able to bring gifts early to suit your calendar better, meaning you can celebrate ‘Pakjesavond’ prior to December 5th too. To make delivery easy for Pete, gifts are delivered in burlap sacks or in a spare laundry hamper or other big vessel a cheeky Pete found somewhere inside your home.
Practice your songs
Where Christmas has carols, Sinterklaas comes with songs.
If you’re brave enough to put your newly acquired Dutch skills to the test, try a few. One of the best-known songs is “Zie Ginds Komt de Stoomboot,” which translates to “Look! There comes the steamboat.” It is sung during the ‘intocht’ of Sinterklaas or as part of the tradition where kids put their shoes in front of a fireplace, hoping their singing will be rewarded with a small gift. Note for new Sinterklaas-helpers: kids usually get to put their shoe in front of the fireplace twice or thrice between Sinterklaas’ arrival and the day you celebrate ‘Pakjesavond’.
If “Zie Ginds Komt de Stoomboot” is a bit too advanced, trying a shorter song such as “Sinterklaas Kapoentje” may be easier. It is four lines and will also be rewarded with a present if sung through your chimney. You’ll be able to find the songs on Spotify or YouTube, so you’ll have a better understanding of how it should sound. If you’re feeling confident there are karaoke versions available too!
Write your poems
It is customary for Sinterklaas to write a ‘gedicht’ for someone. A ‘gedicht’ in this context is a short poem that us usually accompanying a gift. These short rhymes playfully tease the receiver a little or give hints about the gift. As Sinterklaas is a very busy man, why not put on your thinking miter and try writing a short poem yourself?
A more technical look at these poems is that they follow the ABAB or AABB rhyming scheme. Rhyming-Pete came up with the following example to show you how it’s done:
In winter’s grasp, we gather close (A)
To greet Sint with hearts engrossed (A)
His steamboat sails with joy and cheer (B)
A festive season we hold dear (B)
Children usually have to write such short poems, usually 8 to 12 lines, for their classmates in festive Sinterklaas spirit. In Dutch the poems start as follows:
“Sinterklaas zat te denken
Wat hij [name] zou schenken”
This loosely translates to; “Sinterklaas was thinking, what he should be gifting [name]”. Clearly it doesn’t rhyme once translated, but it is a great start to start a classic Sinterklaas poem. If you’re stuck there are plenty of ‘gedicht-generators’ out there to help you out. You don’t get points for creativity, but it allows you to share in Sinterklaas festivities.
Stock up on Sinterklaas snacks
To stay in the Sinterklaas poem spirit: “How will you understand this Dutch tradition better? With your very own chocolate letter!”
Jokes aside, this is the part expats are experts in. The Sinterklaas treats hit stores sometime in September, way before Sinterklaas arrives. Think of ‘peppernuts’, ‘marzipan’, ‘speculaas’ aplenty. These treats are seasonal, and available from the end of September until December 5th. As Sinterklaas departs on December 6th, so will these treats, which are usually heavily discounted from December 6th onwards. If you’re a big fan of ‘kruidnoten’, this is the time to stock up and build a stash that should last you until summertime.
It is very common to receive the initial of your first name made of chocolate as a gift in your shoe, or on the night of 5 December. Fun fact, did you know that the A, S and M are usually sold out the quickest as people think these letters contain the most chocolate? This used to be true, but nowadays all letters have the same weight. The chocolate letter ‘I’ has as much chocolate as the letter ‘M’ for example. If the letter you’re looking for isn’t available anymore, you can always opt for the letter S or P, for Sint or Pete as an alternative.
These Sinterklaas treats are available in supermarkets since the end of September, well before Sinterklaas arrives. It’s a known fact these snacks taste so much better during the gloomy days leading up to ‘Pakjesavond’.
Make it your own
Tailor the Sinterklaas celebration to your preferences. It is a great opportunity to throw a potluck dinner party with a ‘kruidnoten’-inspired dessert. If you prefer to stay a bit truer to the tradition, host a secret Santa, or Secret Sint(a) if you will with your friends. Set a budget, put all attendees’ names in a bowl, draw one and buy a gift for that person. It is also a great excuse to stay in, have hot cocoa, heaps of ‘kruidnoten’ and watch a Sinterklaas movie. Yes, they are in Dutch and kid-oriented but very cute and wholesome. Plus, they should convey that Sinterklaas sentiment, and it’s a great way to practice your Dutch!