Ho ho ho, the holidays are coming!
As with any European country, we too, enjoy our fair share of holidays and merriment.
Although Christmas is gaining popularity among the Dutch, the feast of ‘Sinterklaas’ (Saint Nicholas) is still the most beloved holiday in the Netherlands. It’s caused quite a stir in recent years, not just in our small country but also around the world (click here to read all about it). Not to worry, however: we’re all ready to leave the discussions behind us, paint Pete with every colour of the rainbow, and get back to celebrating the magic that brings all believers – big and small – together.
Although the evening of the fifth of December is the official ‘pakjesavond’ (literally ‘gift night’), Saint Nick, an old man not dissimilar to Santa Claus, arrives in the Netherlands mid-November, and that’s when the excitement really starts. He arrives by steamboat with his horse and all of his ‘Petes’, (‘Pieten’ in Dutch). His adventures are covered daily on the Sinterklaas news on national television. Because Sinterklaas and his helpers roam the rooftops and deliver gifts through the chimney, children place their shoe by the fireplace (but any alternative will do) and welcome him by singing one of the many Sinterklaas songs. They also leave drawings for the holy man and carrots for his horse. In the morning, to everyone’s surprise, the food and drawings are gone, and the children are happy to find ‘pepernoten’ – a type of ginger nut – or sometimes even a little gift in their shoe.
On ‘pakjesavond’, the eve of Sinterklaas’s birthday, a jute bag appears on the doorstep, accompanied by loud banging on the windows. It must be part of Sinterklaas’s magic that every household seems to have a member who misses this specific event every year; because they’re in the bathroom or having a quick look in the garden to see whether the bag has actually been left there. The bag itself is filled with gifts, ‘pepernoten’ and usually poems. These poems are usually funny, sometimes poignant, but will always offer some ‘constructive feedback’ for the reader!
The magic of this holiday is of course mainly aimed at children, but for most people, it will stay with them their entire lives. ‘Pakjesavond’ doesn’t end when you grow up. Most adults celebrate it by buying presents and writing poems for one another. Those of a less literary persuasion fabricate ‘surprises’ for each other. These consist of lots of papier-mâché, or some other material associated with arts and crafts, with a gift on the inside. After opening the gift, each person has to guess who made their surprise.So, if you’re looking for a fun Dutch tradition for young and old to add to your family’s festivities, Sinterklaas is the way to go. What better way is there to start off your December than with some time spent with family, singing songs, and believing in a little magic again? Enjoy your fifth of December!