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How to celebrate Sinterklaas 'present night'

How to celebrate Sinterklaas 'present night'

For many Dutch families, it is the special atmosphere of "present night" (pakjesavond) that makes Sinterklaas a unique celebration filled with nostalgic traditions.

How to celebrate pakjesavond

Here are some ways to celebrate a traditional Dutch pakjesavond.

What is pakjesavond?

On pakjesavond, December 5, Sinterklaas mounts his white steed with a bag full of presents in hand, to deliver to the homes of families that are gathered around the fire place, singing songs in his honour.

Setting a shoe

Setting a shoe (schoentje zetten) is basically an invitation for Sinterklaas. By placing children’s shoes by the fireplace, or another designated spot in a more modern home, Sinterklaas is called to bring candy and small presents.

Don’t be mistaken, this deal goes two ways. In order for the red-robed saint to visit, he requires a carrot or apple for his horse, and preferably also a drawing in his honour to be placed inside the footwear. Also, the shoe-setter has to sing one or more songs to call him, before going to bed.

In earlier years, when children had been bad, they would find a piece of coal, a bag of salt or a rod in their shoe the next morning, instead of candy.

Setting the shoe is usually done in the days leading up to pakjesavond, but some households also set them on December 5.

 Eating Sinterklaas candy

Every year, the Dutch are outraged to find seasonal treats that belong solely to the Sinterklaas period in shops too early.

A true Sinterklaas fan will only occasionally indulge in these candies outside of pakjesavond, and go all out when it’s finally December 5:

- Pepernoten

The most iconic of the Sinterklaas candy is the pepernoten. This word is, in fact, used for two types of candy. The true pepernoot is a chewy little block, made with ingredients like aniseed, rye dough and brown sugar. The kruidnoot, a small drop made from speculaas herbs, is also often called pepernoot.

These small biscuit-y treats used to be thrown around by Sinterklaas and his helpers, to the delight of the little ones. Due to some overly enthusiastic chucking incidents, the pepernoten are now more often handed over rather than thrown.

- Chocolate letter

The chocolate letter is another favourite, and it often appears in the set shoe. The massive block of chocolate will either be shaped like an S, for Sinterklaas, a P, for his helper Piet, or the first letter of the receiving child’s name.

- Marzipan

Marzipan is definitely a winter candy, sweet, filling and with a strong taste that not everybody likes. This malleable stuff is moulded into all kinds of forms, from fruits and little potatoes to pigs and puppets.

- Speculaas

Speculaas is a general favourite in the Dutch biscuit world, made with special speculaas herbs, which includes cinnamon, ginger, cumin, nutmeg and more.

- Taai taai

Taai taai is made from similar stuff as the original pepernoot. Whole dolls wearing traditional garb can be made from either taai taai or speculaas, to be presented to children for Sinterklaas.

Present delivery

On pakjesavond, when the family has gathered around the fire, TV or each other, when the children are singing songs to call Sinterklaas, one adult family member will invariably get up to get more firewood, use the bathroom or just stretch their legs. This person is always the unlucky one who misses the magical moment.

When the person is gone, a sudden loud knocking or ringing at the front door will disturb the peace of the gathering. A clatter of pepernoten will sound against the window, and when the family dares to go and look, a bag of presents will be standing right outside.

This bag was definitely delivered by Sinterklaas and Piet, and the kids almost saw him. They can tell all about it to the person who sadly wasn't there when it happened.

Opening the presents

When the loot has been dragged inside, do not expect to just dig out some presents and unwrap them. Each household has its own rules to open the treats in Sinterklaas’ bag.

- Poems

One way to go about opening the presents is to take one out, read who it’s for, and hand it to them. They will find a poem on the package, which they can read aloud.

These poems generally consist of amusing and teasing anecdotes about the receiver, and sometimes give silly orders they must undertake before opening their present.

- "Surprises"

A "surprise", pronounced surpreesuh, is a handmade contraption in which the real present has been hidden inside. The receiver must first find the present by tearing the "surprise" apart. This often proves difficult, as it may include layers of tape, nasty substances to dig through, and trick presents.

- Sinterklaas games

Finally, some households play Sinterklaas games to decide who gets to keep which presents.

These presents are usually not for one person in particular, and can contain anything. By rolling dice, or with other kinds of game mechanics, a player can, in their turn, either grab, pass or open a present, or get a different assignment altogether, like having to sing a Sinterklaas song.

Do you know any other Sinterklaas pakjesavond traditions? Let us know in the comments below!

Alexandra

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Alexandra van Kampen

English and Japanese theatre and culture are my forte. My mother was raised in England, and my grandmother in Japan. I studied Japanese Language and Culture, and Film and Photographic...

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