Sinterklaas for expats: all the Dutch you need to make it through the holiday season

Sinter-who? 🎅

“It’s almost Pakjesavond!” Almost what? Yup, to internationals, Dutch traditions can seem confusing or just plain weird. But you’ve come to the right place: our (unofficial but absolutely excellent) guide to Sinterklaas for expats. 

While the rest of the world spends December waiting for Christmas, the Netherlands has its own way of fooling kids during the winter period: Sinterklaas.

Sinterklaas refers to two things. Firstly, it is the name for the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus — except this one’s from Spain for some reason. Secondly, it refers to the actual holiday, also the Dutch version of Christmas, which takes place on December 5.

Regardless of where you’re from, you’ve probably heard about Sinterklaas due to the controversial nature of his helpers, Zwarte Pieten.

To understand this Dutch holiday tradition in all its controversy and to fully enjoy what happens on December 5, you’re gonna need some proper Dutch vocabulary. So, here’s our guide to Sinterklaas vocab for expats — featuring all the wonderfully Dutch things that come with the holiday!

Some Sinterklaas vocab for expats

Get your notebooks ready, here we go. 👇


Sinterklaas season starts with the arrival of Sinterklaas into the Netherlands, called “intocht van Sinterklaas.” This usually takes place in mid-November.

Sintaklaas arriving on boat
Sint arrives in a different Dutch city each year. Image: Depositphotos

The word intocht is actually a normal Dutch word for arrival, but somehow we only use it in the context of our bearded holiness. 🎅🏻


The traditional night of the Sinterklaas celebration, the night of December 5, is called pakjesavond (gift evening). On this day, parents offer gifts to their kids, which of course, come straight from Sinterklaas himself. 😉

In order for children actually to believe that there is a very old guy buying gifts for all the children in the whole of the Netherlands, the evening usually consists of a neighbour (buurman) slamming on the front door, throwing pepernoten and leaving some presents on the doorstep. 🎁


The most common way of celebrating Sinterklaas for adults is with a surprise (pronounced in proper Dunglish: suprieseh). This is preferably a handmade creative work of art in which an actual gift is hidden.

In the month before pakjesavond, all individuals participating in the celebration pick straws to sort out who’s surprising who.

Then they buy a gift for the person they picked — but it has to be cheap! In typical Dutch style, gifts must be bought within a cadeaulimiet (present limit). The crafted gift has to be accompanied by a poem, called a “sinterklaasgedicht” about the person the surprise is intended for.


The Sinterklaas poem is an important aspect of the Sinterklaas celebration. It’s usually written in a simple AABB/ABBA rhyme scheme and usually contains embarrassing/fun information about the person the poem is written for.

READ MORE | The complete guide to writing a top Sinterklaas poem

The poem is always written from Sinterklaas’s or Zwarte Piet’s perspective since they are meant to know all your dirty little secrets. 😂

Time to get your creative juices flowing! Image: Depositphotos

Pro-tip: This is how you start all traditional poems: “De Sint was eens aan het denken, wat zou hij XXX nou eens schenken?” (The Sint was just thinking, what he would be gifting to XXX).

Pro-tip 2: The unimaginative ones use a poem generator. Here’s a really basic one… 👀


We could write a whole article about the Sinterklaas songs. I always get nostalgic when I think about the many raunchy songs I’ve learnt in childhood. But since DutchReview is a PG-rated website, we’re gonna keep it clean and just switch to this short and sweet traditional song:

Sinterklaas Kapoentje,
gooi wat in m’n schoentje,
gooi wat in m’n laarsje.
Dank u, Sinterklaasje.

Which translates into:

Sinterklaas Kapoentje,
Throw something in my shoe-ie,
Throw something in my booty.
Thank you, Lil Sinterklaas.

So I hear you thinking, what the heck is that Kapoentje? After some extensive research, the first link on Google told me it was slang for either a eunuch, Jew, bandit, or villain. Ouch! Again, no political correctness points for the Sint. 😱


Literally translated, strooigoed means “sprinkling good.” That makes no sense, but the better translation of “sprinkling candy” only does a slightly better job. It’s the sugary sweets that the Zwarte Pieten throw around when they enter a room.

Chocolade krijtjes

Chocolade krijtjes are chocolate cigarettes.

Yup, this is what Zwarte Piet or your parents gave you when you were too young for real cigarettes, but you needed a fix. You could say that these sweets allowed many generations of Dutch people to link that lovely feeling of fake chocolate to that other feeling that gives you death. 🍫

Pepernoten vs Kruidnoten

When Moses came down that small Dutch mountain, he gave the Dutch two holy points of discussion: Zwarte Piet and his colour (almost there) and the great debate of whether pepernoten in the shops in August is a national outrage or an accepted form of making a living for a shopkeeper.

To get a true (and slightly simple-minded) Dutchie really riled up, you can also just carelessly say pepernoten when you really want to stuff your mouth with kruidnoten. So let’s get this one right once and for all:

These are kruidnoten:

KRUIDNOTEN. Image: Pixabay

And these are pepernoten:

Know the difference! Image: M. Minderhoud/Wikimedia Commons/CC3.0

Chocolate letters

This isn’t a Dutch word, but it is by far the best Dutch tradition. It’s exactly the right brown stuff you want to find in your shoe.

The best part of our year is munching on chocolate letters — no doubt about it! Image: Depositphotos

So was there anything else we didn’t cover yet when it comes to Sinterklaas for expats? Oh yeah, right…

The Zwarte Pieten discussie

Zwarte Piet is an annual cause of protests in the Netherlands. Image: Pixabay

Oh, and of course, there’s the Zwarte Pieten discussie (Black Petes’ Discussion). To be able to participate in this ongoing Dutch tradition, you have to understand a couple of Dutch concepts.


This is probably going to be the key to the transformation of Pete’s appearance. The story about Sinterklaas’ helper using the chimney and therefore being black is an often-heard argument to support that his black skin has nothing to do with racism.

But when RTLNieuws changed their Piets to an actual soot-Piet, all hell broke out in little Holland. There was further controversy when Google stepped into the debate and blocked all ads of Zwarte Pieten.

READ MORE | Finally: Amsterdam stops funding Sinterklaas parades containing Zwarte Piet


Let’s also try to include all the orange, purple, pink, and green people in Dutch society and produce a Rainbowpiet — that should be a great idea!” said no one ever. The Pieten in all the colours of the rainbow are equally controversial throughout the Netherlands.

This article could stretch on for days if we were to properly discuss the Pieten, so this is a very brief summary that we will offer for now.

If you’re curious about Sinterklaas’ arrival, the distribution of strooigoed, and the ugliness that is the Zwarte Piet debate, then watch our video on Sinterklaas’ arrival into Leiden:

Did we miss any Sinterklaas traditions? Let us know in the comments below.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in November 2016 and was fully updated in November 2023 for your reading pleasure.

Feature Image: Eric Bro/Wikimedia Commons/CC3.0

Abuzer van Leeuwen 🇳🇱
Abuzer van Leeuwen 🇳🇱
Abuzer founded DutchReview a decade ago because he thought expats needed it and wanted to make amends for the Dutch cuisine. He has a Masters in Political Science and IT but somewhere always wanted to study history or good old football. He also a mortgage in the Netherlands and will happily tell you too how to get one. Born and raised in Rotterdam, Abuzer now lives in Leiden but is always longing back to his own international year in Italy.

Liked it? Try these on for size:

What do you think?

  1. Hi! One correction: we ‘celebrate’ Sinterklaas’s death on the 5. December in the Netherlands whereas in Belgium they ‘celebrate’ it on the 6th… It is not clear when he was born, but we are almost sure he died on the 6. of December.

    • Traditionally, a lot of festivities start the evening before the festive day, at sunset. Think Christmas Eve, New Years Eve…

  2. Actually we do not celebrate the birthday of Saint Nicholas on five December. We celebrate his death on six December, which day in mediaeval times happened to start with the evening of the day before six December. So the evening of five December in mediaeval times actually was six December. This antiquated use therefore is a testimony to the great age of the celebration.

    Another such indication of its great age is that it doesn’t occur on our contemporary winter solstice of spring equinox, for the celebration actually is a turn of the year ritual. Due to the precession of the orbit of the Earth during the elapse of centuries the dates of the solstices and equinoxes change.

    The chimney is an euphemism for Hell: the Realm of the Dead. Everybody turns pitchblack in Hell – because the UV radiation there is hellish. In the magical paradigm there is a magical association between the chimney of Hell and all other, ordinary chimneys.

    Saint Nicholas in fact himself ruled Hell twice and therefore turned pitchblack himself during those reigns. Eventually he got to rule Heaven and his son Zwarte Piet succeeded him as the ruler of Hell.

    Saint Nicholas’ wife also did a stint as ruler of Hell. Various folklore still remembers her. In parts of Italy, for example, she is known under the name Befana.

    Zwarte Piet is Saint Nicholas’ son and heir to his throne. Saint Nicholas represents the aged and dying Old Year, and his son Zwarte Piet represents the youthful New Year.

    In my Dutch language e-book about Zwarte Piet I show various other characters to also be Zwarte Piet figures. For example I show that Jesus is a Zwarte Piet figure. Zwarte Piet, the son of God, is the Messiah announced in the Old Testament.

    In two chapters – also published as independent e-books in English – I show the English highwayman Dick Turpin to be a Zwarte Piet figure; and various Australian bushrangers and USA American outlaws – such as Billy the Kid – to also be Zwarte Piet figures. Turpin used to hide in chimneys, and Billy the Kid made his escape through a chimney.

    • What!? My fathers family is from the Netherlands, this is the first time I’ve heard this!! Time for me to do some research! Ha! This is not the Sinterklass I grew up knowing. Where do I start? Do you have any helpful suggestions for me?

    • I’m Dutch too, and I always learned that it’s Sinterklaas’ birthday. Though I get the explanation with the day he died and such, I don’t really care. To be fair, pretty nobody Dutch knows otherwise than that it’s his birthday or even it’s just the day the Sinterklaas holiday is. At least not as far as I know. I’m fine with roetveegpieten too by the way. I also heard something about the Moriscos, but I think the roetveegpieten and the chimney explanation are fine anyway.

  3. Lmao, chocolate chalk
    Man i miss the good old days when people wouldn’t be so sensitive about little things like that.
    That chocolate never even made me think of starting to smoke. Schoolfriends do that for ya. Most things i read on here sound like the real deal however the sate peanutbutter prank luckily doesn’t. ‘T heerlijke avondje Was not really a sentence i ever used related to sinterklaas and we celebrated it on the night of the 5th AND the 6th for the famile of the other side.

  4. The tradition with the chocolate letters is actually based on an older Frisian tradition, where Frisians celebrate that the goddess Freya gave language to them. It’s celebrated around Christmas.

  5. A “kapoentje” is also slang for a ladybug, and is what I always think about with the song. But eunuch might have something to do with celibacy and church related things for the good saint.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related posts

Latest posts

Here’s how to get the Dutch job of your dreams with Undutchables

Many people face challenges when it comes to finding their dream job in the Netherlands.   It’s no secret that the job market is becoming increasingly...

What is the average salary in the Netherlands? What you need to know in 2024

Understanding the average salary in the Netherlands is important for professionals considering a move to this European country. The Netherlands is known for its high...

This Dutch city is building a swimming pool inside an old church (and it looks heavenly)

What do you do when you have a city with an empty church and no central swimming pools? The Dutch city of Heerlen had...

It's happening

Upcoming events

The latest Dutch news.
In your inbox.