I’ve mentioned a little about our embracing of the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition here, but thought I’d share a few more details.
Officially, Sinterklaas arrived in Maastricht in mid November. He comes by boat, then parades through town sometimes by horse, but in our case this year, by car. It is a super festive day, with families out on the sidewalks singing songs and hoping for candy to be handed out by the Piets (the controversial helpers). Then he travels around to other cities.
After this festive day of arrival, the next big day is December 5th, which is pakjesavond. This is the “present night” when Sinterklaas magically delivers gifts in shoes that have been left out by children. Children usually put carrots for Sinterklaas’s horse, and, it is said that “naughty” children are given coal in their shoes instead of gifts. For my American friends…sound familiar?
Somewhere along the way, the tradition is merging with some other traditions and there’s a myriad of ways families celebrate Sinterklaas. For example, some only have gifts the night of the pakjesavond. Others, as we learned from the boys’ classmates, get small gifts every night between the night Sinterklaas arrives to town and the night of the pakjesavond. Some kids get fancy gifts, some get small candies. In our Dutch home, whenever the boys remembered to put out their shoes, Sinterklaas left a small chocolate coin.
The night of pakjesavond is typically a big family night. From what I’ve read, a relative will usually leave the room for a period of time, and just at that moment, someone may see Sinterklaas outside leaving a bag a of gifts. The relative returns, of course, as soon as Sinterklaas has taken off. Then gifts are exchanged BUT it is done in a fun way:
Similar to a Secret Santa exchange, family members will have a relative for which he or she buys a small gift. They wrap the gift in a super creative way and write a poem that “roasts” the family member. I gather, you do this all in a way so that the family member doesn’t know who gifted them the present/wrote the poem.
In our house, it was a bit more subdued. We did go visit our Austrian neighbors for some treats/coffee in the afternoon. Then after dinner, the boys once again put carrots in their shoes outside, and in the morning of December 6, there were a few more treats, bigger than the chocolate coins they’d been receiving. One of the items is a chocolate letter. The boys received an “S” for Sinterklaas, but you can also receive the letter of your name, for example. They also received gingerbread men to decorate, which we took advantage of during our Christmas break. No crazy poems or fancy packaging for our guys, but the kids were happy.
At school, however, they did participate in a version of the secret Sinterklaas. They were given a classmate’s name in secret, along with a list of that person’s likes/interests, and a budget of about 10 euros for Caleb and 7.50 euros for Mason. They were to buy a gift, wrap it in something creative, and write a poem. The party at school was delayed due to a Covid outbreak where several students tested positive so their entire grades had to go into quarantine.
Once they did have their party, though, the kids were SO excited to give/get their Sinterklaas presents. As mentioned in my Christmas Market post, Caleb chose to give his classmate a small cat carved out of obsidian snowflake that he purchased at the Aachen Christmas Market. Caleb disguised his gift as a baseball bat and hid the cat inside the bat, which he constructed primarily out of an empty paper towel roll and some paper. Mason’s classmate enjoyed games, so we had Melissa bring back a game of Sushi Go! from the USA, one of our family favorites. Mason wrapped it in a larger box, that he then decorated as a domino, which the classmate also liked. Here’s a video of Mason’s gift to his classmate. Sadly, Josh and I did not take any photos of their gifts.
Caleb received a Robux gift card wrapped inside something really Roblox-y. While Mason received a game of Phase 10 (a game we love!) inside the most creative cat box (where the gift came out his butt! hah!) and there was a a cat vs. dog game of tic tac toe on the top.
You could tell the kids who drew our boys’ names were pretty expert in their creative packaging. I think this little trend of Secret Sinterklaas is something I want to bring back to the states. Even if just between friends, the crazy packaging and the poems is super fun.
Here’s some other reading on Sinterklaas and how the Dutch celebrate, if you’re curious: