It’s time for Pakjesavond! As an expat, such Dutch traditions can seem confusing and just plain weird. But to help you avoid stress over Sinterklaas, here’s our  (unofficial but absolutely excellent) guide to Pakjesavond and Sinterklaas. 

While the rest of the world knows December for the celebration of Christmas, we here in the Netherlands have our own way of fooling our kids during the winter period.

Sinterklaas refers to two things. Firstly, it is the name for the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus — except this one’s from Spain. Secondly, it refers to the actual holiday —the Dutch version of Christmas — which takes place on 5 December (although they have Christmas too, lucky them!)

Regardless of where you’re from, you’ve probably heard about Sinterklaas due to the controversial nature of his helpers, Zwarte Pieten. There has been much discussion as of late surrounding the topic, so much in fact that we have written multiple articles on the subject!

The issue of Zwarte Piet is not one to be taken lightly, but there’s more to this celebration than an the unfortunate existence of these “helpers” — and that’s what we’re going to discuss here.

Dutch phrases for expats during Sinterklaas

“Daar wordt op de deur geklopt” — “There’s a knocking on the door” (it comes in the form of a song)
“T Heerlijk avondje” — “The Lovely night” (Dutch slang for “pakjesavond”)

Some fortunate children get actual interaction with the man himself if he pays a visit at home. But if you’re not in this age-group and don’t have children that are, you’ll probably spend your “pakjesavond” doing very normal, boring things.

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The video below offers a nice example of what expats can expect from Sinterklaas.

Some Sinterklaas vocab for expats

To enjoy this Dutch holiday tradition in all it’s controversy and to fully understand what happens the 5th of December, you’re gonna need some proper Dutch vocabulary. So here’s our Sinterklaas for expats guide on ‘pakjesavond’ and all those other totally Dutch things that come to pass on the 5th!

Intocht

Sinterklaas season starts with the arrival of Sinterklaas into the Netherlands, called “intocht van Sinterklaas.” This usually takes place in mid-November. The word “Intocht” is actually a normal Dutch word for arrival but somehow we only use it in the context of our bearded holiness.

Pakjesavond

The traditional night of the Sinterklaas-celebration, the night of 5 December is called pakjesavond” (translation: gifts-evening). On this day we celebrate Sinterklaas’ birthday (I guess?), and not like those heathen Belgians on the 6th of December.

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

Surprise

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.”The crafted gift has to be accompanied by a poem, called a “sinterklaasgedicht” about the person the surprise is intended for.

Another fun phrase: Poep in de doos — it’s the classic dirty surprise (and done with peanut butter or saté-sauce.)

Sinterklaasgedicht

The “Sinterklaasgedicht” (translation: 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. The poem is always written from Sinterklaas’s or Zwarte Piet’s perspective since they are meant to know all your dirty little secrets.

Pro-tip: This is how you start all traditional poems: ‘De Sint was eens aan het denken, wat zou hij XXX nou eens schenken?’ (extremely freely translated: 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…

Sinterklaasliedjes

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 webzine, 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?”. I did some extensive research, and 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.

Strooigoed

Literally translated “strooigoed” means “Sprinklinggood.” That makes no sense, but the better translation of “sprinklingcandy” only does a slightly better job. It’s the sugary sweets that Zwarte Pieten throw around when they enter a room. If you want to know what your kid’s favorite drug is, I’ll take you on a short 101-course into Sinterklaas’ candyland.

Chocolate cigarettes

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.

Politically correct Dutch word nowadays: “chocolade krijtjes”

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 or not 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:

KRUIDNOTEN. Image: Nietjuh/Pixabay
And these are PEPERNOTEN. 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. Buy yourself a letter if you’re lonely and no-one gives you one. A far better text than this short segment on this delight is to be found here.

Chocolate letters are the best part of Sinterklaas. There’s no discussion to be had here. Image: Nietjuh/Pixabay

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

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

The Zwarte Pieten discussie

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

Roetveegpiet

This is probably gonna 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 RTL changed their Piet’s to an actual soot Piet all hell broke out in little Holland. There was further controversy when Google stepped in to the debate and blocked all ads of Zwarte Pieten.

Regenboogpiet

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 colors 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 film 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 on 26 November 2016 but was updated for your reading pleasure on 06 November 2020.

Feature image: Eric Bro/Wikimedia Commons/CC2.5 

11 COMMENTS

  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?

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