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 (slightly unofficial but absolutely excellent) guide to Pakjesavond and Sinterklaas.
While the rest of the world knows December for the celebration of Christmas, we have are own way of fooling our kids during the winter period. You’ve probably heard about ‘Sinterklaas’ for being an old bigot since his reindeer are people with black make-up. But there’s more to this celebration than an ongoing discussion about whether his helper is black because he uses the chimney or because he’s a former slave.
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 at the 5th:
Sinterklaas for Expats: Pakjesavond
Sinterklaas season starts with the arrival, called ‘intocht van Sinterklaas’ usually 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 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 there actually is a very old guy buying gifts for all children in the whole country, the evening usually consists of a neighbour (‘buurman‘) slamming on the front-door and leaving some presents on the doorstep.
Dutch phrases you need to know:
Daar wordt op de deur geklopt – ‘There’s a knocking on the door’ (it comes in a singing form)
‘T Heerlijk avondje – ‘The Lovely night’ (Dutch slang for pakjesavond)
Kids more fortunate get some actual interaction with the man himself and his helpers as they pay them a visit at home. But if you’re not in this age-group and don’t have children that are, you’ll probably spent your ‘pakjesavond’ another way: surprise
Let’s also have a look at what expat know about Sinterklaas:
Sinterklaas for Expats: 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 goes down; all individuals participating in the celebration pick straws to sort out who’s surprising who (otherwise that nasty Dutch uncle will never get suprised in a positive way). Then they buy a gift for the person they picked and do this while keeping a limit of expenses in mind called the ‘cadeaulimiet‘. The crafted gift has to be accompanied by a poem (sinterklaasgedicht) about the person the surprise is intended for.
Dutch phrase you need to know:
Poep in de doos – it’s the classic dirty suprise (and done with peanutbutter people, or saté-sauce)
Sinterklaas for Expats: Sinterklaasgedicht
The ‘Sinterklaasgedicht’ (translation: Sinterklaas-poem) is an important aspect of 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 for. The poem is always written from Sinterklaas’s or Black pete’s perspective since they are the ones knowing 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…
Sinterklaas for Expats: Sinterklaasliedjes
We could write a whole article about the Sinterklaas songs. I’m always getting nostalgic when I’m thinking about the dirty 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?’. 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.
Sinterklaas for Expats: Strooigoed
Literally translated ‘strooigoed’ means ‘Sprinklinggood’. That makes no sense, but the better translation of ‘sprinklingcandy’ only does a slighty better job of making sense. It’s that sugar sweetness what Zwarte Pieten (You’ve might have heard about those dudes once or twice) throw around when they enter a room. In order to know what your kids favorite 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’re too young for real sigarettes but you need a fix. Also 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 if 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 a bit simpleminded) 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:
By far the best brown stuff you want to find in your shoe. Buy yourself your letter if you’re lonely and no-one gives it to you. 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…
Sinterklaas for Expats: 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 and quite possibly the Dutch word of 2016 and 2017. 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.
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 thoroughly hated throughout the Netherlands.
Anyways, time to wrap this article up (just like the Zwarte Pieten discussion). 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 20 November 2019.
Feature image: Eric Bro/Wikimedia Commons.