It’s time for Pakjesavond! As an international, 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 as 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 for some reason. Secondly, it refers to the actual holiday —also the Dutch version of Christmas — which takes place on December 5. However, Dutchies also 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 the unfortunate existence of these “helpers” — and that’s what we’re going to focus on here.
Dutch phrases to know during Sinterklaas
“Daar wordt op de deur geklopt” (There’s a knocking on the door)
“T Heerlijk avondje” — “The Lovely night” (Dutch slang for pakjesavond)
Some fortunate children get an 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.
The video below offers a nice example of what internationals can expect from Sinterklaas.
Some Sinterklaas vocab for expats
To enjoy this Dutch holiday tradition in all its controversy and to fully understand what happens on December 5, 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!
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. 🎅🏻
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 children in the whole of the Netherlands, the evening usually consists of a neighbour (“buurman”) slamming on the front door, throwing pepernoten 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.
Another fun phrase: Poep in de doos (poop in box) — it’s the classic dirty surprise (and done with peanut butter or saté-sauce.)
The Sinterklaasgedicht (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?” (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 webzine, we’re gonna keep it clean and just switch to this short and sweet traditional song:
gooi wat in m’n schoentje,
gooi wat in m’n laarsje.
Dank u, Sinterklaasje.
Which translates into:
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. If you want to know what your kid’s favourite drug is, I’ll take you on a short 101-course into Sinterklaas’ Candyland.
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 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:
This is kruidnoten:
And this is pepernoten:
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.
So was there anything else we didn’t cover yet when it comes to Sinterklaas for expats? Oh yeah right…
The Zwarte Pieten discussie
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 words.
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 RTL Nieuws 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.
“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 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 in November 2016 and was fully updated in November 2022 for your reading pleasure.