05 December 2012

Sinterklaas 2012: Pakjesavond


Sinterklaas season ended tonight with "Present Evening" - my very literal translation of the Dutch name for 5 December. I've written about the Sinterklaas story before (in 2011 and 2008). It's a topic that keeps coming back for me. Nowaday, as a parent and not a cultural critic, Sinterklaas is starting to feel like fun little holiday.

It starts with Sinterklaas' arrival from Spain by boat in mid-November. While he is in Holland, children can "set" or put out their shoes at night and receive a small present in the morning. Each family develops their own traditions, but setting shoes on weekends and Wednesdays are a popular choice. When they set a shoe at night, children leave food for his horse - carrots, hay, water - and a gift for Sinterklaas - a drawing or a song - in exchange for their gift. In the morning, children wake up to find a small toy and a treat (mandarin, walnuts, cookies, candy, chocolate) in their shoe. They may also find evidence that Piets (Sinterklaas's helpers) have been to visit - the children's toys played with and left out or pepernoten cookies tossed around the room. Pepernoten (pepper nuts) are little spice cookies about the size of the tip of your thumb. Piets carry them by the bag full and give them to kids throughout the Sinterklaas season.

Present Evening is the climax of the Sinterklaas season. The story goes that it's Sinterklaas' birthday and he gives out presents. After the family finishes dinner, Piet will knock very loudly on the door and toss a handful of pepernoten into the room. He doesn't show himself, though, because he has too much work to do. By the time the children get to the open front door to look for him, he's gone. If they've been good, Piet will have left a bag of gifts behind. After that it's all fun and games unwrapping gifts, eating more pepernoten, and staying up too late. Peanut's school isn't starting until after lunch tomorrow morning so that kids can sleep in after their big night.

It's been interesting to observe how my own feelings about Sinterklaas have changed over the years. In the beginning I was shocked, then offended, and now I'm probably moving towards mildly amused. The Piets are actually called Zwarte Piets (Black Peters) and run around in black face (see those older posts for more). It's a challenge now to teach my children to use different terms when everyone around them happily talks about Zwarte Piets. But I also see how this is essentially a joyful, light-hearted holiday season that revolves around children and fun. I hope our little ones will have wonderful memories of Sinterklaas when they grow up. And that they will one day celebrate a Sinterklaas with Piets. Just Piet.


  1. I have a friend who is an American transplant to The Netherlands and she has told me that it is a...rather interesting holiday over there. ;) I was trying to find the David Sedaris videos about Sinterklaas earlier today!

  2. So.. how do you really get them to toss the bag in while the family is eating dinner? Do you enlist the help of a neighbor or friend?

    1. A lot of people get help from a neighbor. I've heard some hilarious stories - neighbor hiding behind car so as not to be seen by kids. One of us "went upstairs" and Piet knocked very loudly on the window, tossed in pepernoten, and left a bag in the hall. Peanut was amazed and had to tell the story to returning parent. So sweet - kids his age are completely caught up in the story. I'm a bit jealous.


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