What is 'Sinterklaas'?

If you’ve been in the Netherlands for some time, you will have noticed that halfway through November, something happens. Out of nowhere the stores are filled with strange looking candy and letter-shaped chocolate. A bearded man on a white horse and people smeared with grime dressed in colourful outfits seem to be everywhere you look. No, you are not hallucinating, you have stumbled upon a national holiday the Dutch like to call “Sinterklaas” (Saint Nicholas). For a non-Dutch person, this all might seem terribly confusing. That is why the SSH will help you, so you can celebrate and enjoy this holiday yourself!

5 December: pakjesavond
Aside from ongoing discussions about the physique of “Zwarte Piet” (Black Pete), this holiday is one of utmost joy. From birth, Dutch children are told about a mysterious man called Sinterklaas who visits the Netherlands every year and brings gifts. He celebrates his birthday on 5 December, which is celebrated as “pakjesavond” (presents night). Afterwards, Sinterklaas and his Pieten go back to Spain, where they live for the rest of the year.

Traditionally, Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands around three weeks before pakjesavond. His steamboat with on it himself, his horse Americo, the Pieten and all the gifts, arrives at a different city every year (this year in Meppel). This event is broadcasted live on national television.

'Schoen zetten'
Children know that when Sinterklaas arrives, they can put their shoe in front of the fireplace (or anywhere else if you don’t have one). Before they go to bed, the children sing a Sinterklaas song, put their wish list in their shoe and hope that when they’ll wake up the next morning, something will be in it, like a gift or some sweets. At night the Pieten climb through chimneys to deliver these gifts. It is also common to leave some water and a carrot or sugar cube for the horse, since he has to climb roofs the entire night. You might ask, how does Sinterklaas get to all these shoes in one night? That’s the mystery part of the whole thing, no one really knows.

When pakjesavond finally arrives, families gather round and wait for the “goedheiligman” (saintly man) to come knock on their door. After waiting for a while, there usually follows a knock on the door and a huge sack filled with gifts for everyone arrives. Common foods consumed on this evening are “pepernoten” and “chocoladeletters”. For the full Sinterklaas experience you should really try them yourself.

Some families or friend groups celebrate with “surprises” as well. To do this you put every participant’s name on a piece of paper and hand these out amongst the group. You will then have a name for whom you have to create a personal and usually funny craftwork in which you hide a gift. Alongside the surprise you can also write a poem, in which you tell something about the person. But do not reveal who you are! This makes it more fun.

If you’re fully committed to the Sinterklaas celebrations, you could try to learn some songs as well. There are many different ones to choose from such as “Zie ginds komt de stoomboot” or “Sinterklaas kapoentje”.

Do you now feel that you’re ready to celebrate? Enjoy your pakjesavond!