Thursday, December 4, 2008

5 December - It's a Dutch Thing

When I first moved to the Netherlands in 2000, the annual celebration on the 5th December baffled me. Year after year, in search of enlightenment I bombarded my Dutchie with questions,

  • You Dutch celebrate both Sinterklaas and Christmas. How does that work exactly?

  • What do you tell the children - Sinterklaas comes at the beginning of December from Spain on the steamboat with his horse, and then the Kerstman comes at the end of the month with his sleigh and reindeer?

  • How does buying two lots of presents in December fit with the Dutch reputation of stinginess being careful with money?

  • What do you mean you want me to put a carrot in my shoe?

  • Why do you throw sweets at your children?

  • St Nicholaas is actually from Turkey but travels from Spain in a boat to the Netherlands every year?

  • Where can I find an online Sinterklaas poem generator?

  • So, let me get this right. Good girls get chocolate letters and pepernoten and bad girls get a free trip to Spain?

  • Sint’s slaves helpers are black because of the soot in the chimneys? Really?

  • Why can I not finish off this Sint paper and use it to wrap Christmas presents?

Eight years on, I start to get it. I even get into the spirit of it but only because we now have a child. Last year was the first time we celebrated Sinterklaas properly. This year our nearly two-year-old son is a little more aware of what is going on, and will be more of an active participant in the festivities.

So here is the low down on what you need to celebrate pakjesavond in the Netherlands on the evening of 5 December.
1. Presents
2. A sack – to put all the presents in
3. A knowledge of Sinterklaasliedjes (songs) – for the children to sing to encourage St. Nicholas and his entourage to visit their house
4. A friendly neighbour or a fast moving parent* – to play Sint's helper Zwarte Piet (Black Pete)
5. A door or a door bell– for Sint’s helper to knock on/ ring
6. A glove – for Zwarte Piet to wear on the hand that will appear through the door
7. Pepernoten, kruidnoten and other sweets designed to give any child a sugar injection – for Zwarte Piet to throw through a crack in the door with his gloved hand
8. Poems – to attach to the presents for the receiver to read out

*You can also ‘rent’ a drunken student from Leiden to play Zwarte Piet for a reasonable fee

In summary, here is how it goes: the doorbell rings, or there is a rat-a-tat-tat at the door, and a gloved hand launches sweets across the living room floor. The hand and attached body quickly leaves the house. When the children go to the door, they find a sack of presents left behind.

My husband recalls that their neighbour always played the role of Sint’s helper, until he and his siblings got bigger and faster and put an end to the charade by getting to the hall before ‘Zwarte Piet’ could escape out the front door. He also recalls that their dog always got to the sweets strewn across the floor before they did.

Expat or not, this is a nice Dutch celebration to embrace so go buy a Zwarte Piet hat, a sack and plenty of pepernoten, follow the mass exodus of the Dutch workforce leaving the office early and enjoy 5 December.

For further info on Sinterklaas check these links out:
Zwarte Piet and the Politics of Culture

Expatica Sinterklaas survival guide

The Dutch Tradition of Sinterklaas

Sinterklaas Treats

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