Sinterklaas in the Netherlands: mid November til 5 December

In addition to general informations about Sinterklaas’ arrival to the Netherlands mid November, there is a very important period between his arrival and the 5th December, when Sinterklaasavond (or Pakjesavond) is celebrated.

Here in the Netherlands, these are actually very busy weeks for children, parents as well as for Sinterklaas and his helpers. Between his arrival mid November and 5 December, every evening children use to put their shoes next to the fireplace chimney or fireplace – or even in front of the main door or next to the central heating unit – before going to bed. This is called “Schoenen zetten“.

The shoe is left with a carrot or some hay and sometimes a bowl of water nearby. These are gifts for the horse of Sinterklaas, Amerigo. Then, the children usually sing a Sinterklaas song through the chimney pipe. The next day they will find some candy or a small present in their shoes. Not always, but most of the time.

The weeks preceding his birthday, Sinterklaas has a lot to do. At night he rides his horse over the roofs, accompanied by his servants. During the night, when the children are asleep, the Pieten come down the chimneypipe to take away the carrot and put some candy for the children in return. At daytime, Sinterklaas is invited to television programs, radio stations, and visits schools and institutions for the elderly.

The weeks before Sinterklaas’ birthday (the 6th December) are a prelude with candy and presents and they culminate on the night of December 5. During the day, on the 5 December, the activities of Sinterklaas and his helpers are intensified. They can be spotted everywhere (even on roofs!).

The evening of December 5, Sinterklaas rides with his horse as usual over the roofs of the houses (!), accompanied by his black Pietes, while the children sit cosy and warm next to the central heating or the fireplace, singing songs and drinking hot chocolate. A black valet puts a sack filled with presents at the frontdoor and rings the bell or knocks on the door … Of course, the youngest child of the family must go and fetch the sack.

In many families Sinterklaas and some Pieten bring a visit that evening. The children receive typical Sinterklaas treats, like a chocolate letter (it’s the first letter of the child’s name made out of chocolate) or a letter-shaped pastry filled with almond paste. Sometimes they get mandarin oranges, pepernoten, kruidnoten or speculaas, chocolate coins and marzipan figures. Poems can still accompany bigger gifts as well. This evening is calles Pakjesavond (Evening of Presents) and used to be really important, as bigger – and more expensive! – presents are distributed.

Instead of such gifts being brought by Sinterklaas, family members sometimes draw names for an event comparable to Secret Santa. Gifts need to be creatively disguised – Dutch use the French word “surprise” for this – and they are usually accompanied by a humorous poem which often teases the recipient for well-known bad habits or other character deficiencies. By the way, everyone receives such humorous poems: children and adults. And this makes Sinterklaas an even more special event!

In the Netherlands, on his birthday, the 6 December, Sinterklaas is already heading back to Spain in his steamboat and servants and horse magically dissapear…

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13 replies »

  1. Thanks for that look into the holiday celebrations in the Netherlands. We were there a few years ago, and have to admit didn’t know what to think when we happened into a parade and saw “black Pietes”! There were cookies in the store with that image, and little kids with ones they had made in school with construction paper – seemed totally normal there but to us it was strange….

  2. Wow, that classmate rlleay did his/her best to make something special for Sofia! Happy Sinterklaas! Oskar doesn’t understand it yet. Not sure if I regret that 😉

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