There is no Dutch tradition as cherished as the Sinterklaas poem (well, except perhaps Zwarte Piet). But, what is this mysterious sinterklaasgedicht — and how do you write one?
If it’s your first Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, you may be stressing about joining in on this creative activity. But rest assured, it’s supposed to be a fun and informal bonding moment — so relax, and get ready to roast your friend.
What is a Sinterklaas poem?
A Sinterklaas poem is a piece of writing given to a designated person. It’s normally accompanied by an inexpensive gift (often in elaborate packaging called a surprise). You don’t need to be Robert Frost for this poem though, and you probably won’t need to pull a thesaurus off a shelf.
Instead, this poem is supposed to be a chance for you to poke some fun at your friend: their habits, a silly thing that happened to them this year, or that time that they fell into a canal drunk. Your choice!
There’s a catch: the poem is always written from the perspective of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. So instead of “When we went to the airport and you forgot your passport” it should be “Sint & Piet heard you went to the airport and forgot your passport.”
Who gives Sinterklaas poems?
While the Sinterklaasgedicht is normally a tradition for children, adults often join in the fun. It’s not uncommon to do a poem exchange in a sports club, association, class at university, or group of friends.
When do I give the poem — and how?
On pakjesavond on December 5 each year, your group will generally gather together. If you come for dinner, you may get to enjoy the Dutch treat of gourmetten (which is less gourmet than it sounds), drink some mulled wine, and exchange poems.
If you’re also exchanging surprises you normally integrate your poem into the packaging. For example, if the subject of your poem loves dogs, you may make them a surprise that looks like a dog, and then roll up the poem to sit inside the dog’s mouth like a bone.
The poem is typically typed or handwritten on a normal piece of paper — no decoration is necessary, but go crazy if the mood strikes you.
When the time comes, each person will receive the poem written about them one by one. You’ll receive your poem, and will read it aloud to the room (with plenty of laugh breaks, of course).
How long should a Sinterklaas poem be?
There’s no real length of a Sinterklaas poem — but if you’re like me, that’s not what you want to hear. So as a general rule, make sure your poem is a minimum of eight lines long. Some even argue it should be at least one page.
Again, there are no rules. My partner once received a poem that was four or five pages (she did a lot of dumb stuff that year).
What should my poem be about?
If you’re giving a surprise and a gift with your poem, it’s common for your poem to reference the gift itself for at least part of it. For the other part, or if you’re not giving a gift, your poem shouldn’t be afraid to have some fun.
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Laughing is genuinely the intent of the poem, so save your sappy stuff about being best friends forever. You can take it easy and talk about fun things, like their favourite football team or a dish they’re really good at making. Alternatively, you can start roasting the recipient (all in good fun of course).
If you’re struggling with ideas, sit down and write out anything you think of when thinking about your friend. Write down any possible options, then work from that.
Is your friend always late? Chews with their mouth open? Quite often forgets to scan a few items at the supermarket self-checkout? Wears the same sweater every day? Can’t drive? Is forever losing their wallet or phone? Has a new boyfriend/girlfriend every week? All of these things are prime fodder for your Sinterklaas poem.
How should my poem be written?
Your poem should definitely rhyme, but you shouldn’t stress too much about making it perfect. Most people prefer to write four-line verses in an AABB rhyming scheme. For example:
Sint and Piet heard something that made them cry,
Mary, why do your plants always die?
Maybe you should give them water now and then,
Instead of being obsessed with sexy Tinder men.
Alternatively, you could write your poem in ABCB rhyming style to make it even easier. For example:
Sint and Piet quickly checked their records,
“Why, Piet!” said Sinterklaas, “Mary’s doing something incorrect!”
Piet nodded in agreement,
“She still hasn’t learned Dutch yet!”
If you’re struggling to start your poem, you can always start it with a cliche:
Sint en Piet zaten te denken, // Sint and Piet were thinking
Wat ze jou zouden schenken // What they should give you
And, if you really are struggling with rhymes, don’t be afraid to use your trusty friend Google. There are stacks of rhyme generators out there to give you a hand. 😉
Should I write my Sinterklaas poem in English or Dutch?
That is completely up to you, and your friends. If you feel like taking a swing in Dutch, go ahead! But remember, the Dutch are pretty damn good at English, so if you want to make it easy (or if there will be other non-Dutch speakers present), let your friends know you’ll write in English.
Have you written a Sinterklaas poem before? Got any top tips? Tell us in the comments below!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in December 2020, and was fully updated in November 2022 for your reading pleasure.