Piet and I have been pretty busy around here. We just finished celebrating Sinterklaas in the Netherlands. Luckily this was not our first so we knew what to expect. Every year in Portland my brother-in-law organizes a gift exchange with a group of Dutch expats and their partners. This year we celebrated Sinterklaas on two nights with various family members. Sinterklaas is actually on December 5th, but when it falls on a weekday, many families will choose to celebrate on the nearest weekend.
Who is Sinterklaas?
First of all, it’s important to note that the name “Santa Claus” actually comes from the name “Sinterklaas”, “Saint Nicholas” or the more familiar to Americans, “St. Nick”. In the Netherlands, Sint is actually the retired bishop of Turkey and lives in Madrid, Spain. Every year he travels to the Netherlands accompanied by his helpers called “Zwarte Piete”. They arrive on a boat full of gifts for every girl and boy. Sint arrives on a different date each year, and he makes appearances in every city on different days and times. It’s a much more realistic story as opposed to the Santa Clause I am used to. One man visiting homes all over the world in one night? Not without magic! Sinterklaas doesn’t need magic. In fact, every year there is a different story surrounding Sint and his arrival. This story is told via a twice daily “new report” on national television. It’s aired all over the country twice a day until after the 5th when he goes back to Spain. The consistency of the story surrounding Sint is amazing. If you want a very entertaining, more detailed, humorous description of Sinterklaas, I recommend watching this quick video of David Sedaris reading a piece from his story “Six to Eight Black Men”.
How it Sinterklaas Celebrated?
As for this bit, it seems as if every family has their own tradition around how and when they celebrate. Once Sinterklaas is in the country, children leave a shoe outside the door, by the fireplace or near a window. Inside the shoe is a carrot for Sint’s horse Amigo. In the morning the carrot is gone, and in its place children will usually find candies and maybe a small gift. The day when this occurs varies. Sometimes it’s on the day Sint arrives in the Netherlands and sometimes it’s on the day he arrives in a specific city or town.
On or around December 5th (depending on the family) is when the real party happens. It is called St. Nicholas’ Eve “Sinterklaasavond” or Present Evening “Pakjesavond”. The family gathers and the children sing a little song to welcome Sint and Pieter. Then comes a big knock at the door and voila! A big sack of presents has arrived and maybe even some candy tossed through the door. If you’re a very lucky kid, someone dressed as Sint might come in and deliver the presents in person!
While Sinterklaas is primarily for kids, adults get to have fun too! Enter the Sinterklaas Surprise gift exchange. This is the part we have been doing in Portland for a few years running. There are three elements to this exchange; the gift, the poem and the wrapping.
The gift exchange between adults is called the Sinterklaas Surprise (pronounced sou-prees). Similar to a secret Santa exchange, you are assigned the name of another person in the group to buy a gift for. An agreement is made regarding how much money everyone is to spend, and if you are lucky your recipient will give you a few hints as to what he or she might like to receive. In my opinion, one of the real pleasures of the Sint Surprise is that you only have one gift and one person to focus on. It allows you to get back to the joy of gift giving. No more feelings of pressure to buy meaningless gifts for everyone on a long list.
This is the part that I find the most daunting to tackle. The poem is meant to be written from the voice of Sinterklaas and revolve around the recipient and the gift itself. Typically you might use the poem to lightheartedly tease someone or roast them a little. Unfortunately for me, I always seem to get a recipient that I don’t know super well (yet), so this Sint has to improvise. Here Jolan and Piet read their poems from Sint.
If you ask me, this is the most fun part! The wrapping of the gift is meant to be a little kooky. Perhaps it involves the recipient to partake in a game, to complete a task, or perhaps it’s just personalized in a really creative way. For example, this year I received a papier-mâché Thanksgiving turkey with gifts stuffed inside and hidden in the platter.
Jocham was required to give a haircut to a mannequin head before he could open his gift. Piet’s was cleverly hidden inside a papier-mâché immersion blender, Eefje had to try a trio of lotions, and Jolan opened an umbrella and a down pour of paper hearts came spilling out. And then there was the pig head…
For a more detailed example, I thought I would post a little about the gift I put together for Jan, my Sint Surprise recipient. I gave him the Silo Series of books by Hugh Howey. I used a round gift box and created silo (or at least the portion that would be visible above ground). There were three levels inside, each containing a book. The top level contained the book titled Wool inside, so I wrapped it entirely in yarn. The middle level contained the book titled Dust. For this one I filled the section with fake snow and glitter. The bottom level contained the book titled Shift. I had no idea how to relate the wrapping to the title, so I attached a creepy mask to it and called it good.
Well that’s just one example for you. In the years we spent celebrating in Portland with my brother-in-law, there were some really amazing wrapping techniques. It honestly feels like a lot of work (most people grow up with the tradition so they are used to it). But the payoff is huge when you all get together to eat, drink and have a good laugh opening these special gifts together. Ultra gezellig.