(My first Sinterklaas.) So, first things first: who or what is Sinterklaas?
Sinterklaas is the Dutch version of the traditional figure, Saint Nicholas. Not to be confused with Santa or Father Christmas… he doesn’t come on 24th December or have reindeer or live in the North Pole.
Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands on steamboat from Spain in mid-November with his helpers called ‘Zwarte Pieten’ (‘Black Petes’) and for the next couple of weeks there are Sinterklaas related events around the country (mostly involving Zwarte Piets throwing kruidnoten or pepernoten into the crowd – we’ll talk about those in a sec) before he heads back to Spain on his birthday, 6th December, for a well-deserved rest!
5th December is known as Pakjesavond in the Netherlands. (‘Pakjes’ means packages, but probably a better translation is ‘gifts evening’.) This is the culmination of several weeks of excitement – since his arrival in November – and the night when you eat loads of sweet treats and get presents! Yippee!
Pepernoten literally ‘pepper nuts’ are small, round-shaped cookie like things made from flour, sugar, anise, cinnamon, and cloves. Not to be confused with kruidnoten literally meaning ‘spice nuts’ which are harder, have a different colour and shape and contain the same ingredients as speculoos.
Other Sinterklaas treats include chocolate letters (chocolate shaped into the first letter of your name), chocolate coins (we get those in England too) and pastry shaped into a letter containing an almond flavour paste (known in the Netherlands as spijs or amandelspijs.)
The period leading up to 5th December…
Traditionally, in the period between Sinterklaas’ arrival and pakjesavond, he rides around roof tops at night, delivering presents on his white horse named Amerigo. (Although most Dutchies call him Schimmel, which is the type of horse.) Young children leave out their shoe for Sinterklaas to put their present(s) in and often a carrot or some hay for his horse. This part gets a bit confusing for me as there doesn’t seem to be an actual date to do this… Sinterklaas can just rock up whenever he feels like it. So you have to have your shoe prepared!
Then, on 5th December, the main presents will arrive “somehow”…
You might get a note saying where they’re hidden, or some people get a friend or neighbour to knock and run (pretending to be a Zwarte Piet) and leave a sack of presents for the kids to find.
How my family celebrates Sinterklaas…
Despite the fact that I’ve been with a Dutch guy for 5 years, this year was my first Sinterklaas!
Since my nephews are all 11+ there was no need to hire neighbours to deliver presents or leave notes… they already know the score, so there was just a pile of presents when we walked in.
We were each given a member of the family to buy a gift for, organised via a Secret Santa like draw. In addition to a real present, we also had to make a ‘surprise’ for that person. The idea of a ‘surprise’ is to package the gift in such a way that it disguises the real gift in a humorous and personalised way. You also have to write a poem, and from what I saw that evening, the main goal is to take the piss out of that person… in a friendly way of course!
I drew my nephew, so that was an easy one! At our wedding in August, my Mum took a real shine to him and after a few glasses of bubbly she was pinching his cheeks and doing the whole overenthusiastic-drunk-Auntie thing. Except that I’m his Auntie! 😉 So I printed out a picture of my Mum, as large as I could, and then framed it and hid the real present (a video game) behind the frame. My husband (aka The Dutchie) wrote a hilarious poem about the whole debacle (as my Dutch isn’t quite good enough to write a whole poem yet!!) and we all had a good laugh about the photo needing to be placed above his bed so that he could see her every day. (Luckily, my Mum has a wicked sense of humour too!)
When it was my turn, I received the following box! But first… I had to read out a whole poem, in Dutch! (Very daunting whilst sat in front of seven Dutchies!!)
My gift was hidden in a special Bitterballen box, made by my youngest nephew, with my name on one side and a heart on the other with a secret door to get the presents out! Zo lief! (So sweet!) The ‘surprises’ are supposed to be exactly that by the way, but with only eight of us, it was pretty easy to guess who had got each person!
When it was my husband’s turn, he received a large box from our brother-in-law, who produced the most intricate ‘surprise’ of the night: ‘Een oefenbaby!’ (A practice baby!) Complete with fake poo which he had to delve through to search for a clue as to where the real present was hidden! Yuk! (If you’re new to the blog and missed the joke here: I don’t want kids might explain why he was given a fake baby.)
I’ll spare you the poo pictures… It was damn funny though!
So, how is Sinterklaas celebrated in your household? Are there any other quirky traditions I’ve missed? 😉
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[Note: I am aware that there has been much controversy and discussion about ‘Zwarte Pieten’ in recent years, but this is not what my post is about, it’s about the celebration of Sinterklaas. Those wishing to talk about this issue further should join the hundreds of other discussions on the internet about it. Any comments on my blog regarding this topic will be moderated accordingly.]