Today is a pretty important day in the Netherlands. December 5th is the eve of Sinterklaas, or “Loot Day”, as I like to call it. December 6th is Saint Nicolas’s birthday, and every 5th of December he and his “helpers” travel through the Netherlands to deliver gifts to all the boys and girls. In yet another example of the many ways the Dutch have shaped American culture, Santa Claus is derived from the Dutch name for Saint Nicolas, Sinterklaas. We gave you the best holiday of the year. Take that, beeyatches.
Although the tradition of a saint delivering gifts to children across the land is shared by both the American Christmas and the Dutch Sinterklaas, the style of the gift-giving is very different. I can’t really speak first-hand about how a typical Dutch family celebrates, but I am to understand it’s fairly similar to what my family did.
The evening starts off with singing various songs, among them “Zie Ginds Komt de Stoomboot” (“Look Here Comes the Steam Boat”), “Zie de Maan Schijnt Door de Boomen” (“See the Moon Shines Through the Trees”), and the all-time classic, “Sinterklaas, Kapoentje” (“We Made Up the Word ‘Kapoentje’ to Rhyme With the Word ‘Schoentje'”).
When we were children, my dad would leave the room after we sang to go work on the car, which always had engine trouble on Sinterklaas. Shortly thereafter, Zwarte Piet would throw pepernoten into the living room through open doors and windows. This had the effect of sending me into terrified hysterics. Most of my memories of this activity involve me hiding behind the couch crying. And, as far as I can remember, I never connected the engine trouble with Zwarte Piet’s arrival.
After the pepernoten, we sit down to fresh-baked rolls for dinner. To our “surprise” and “delight”, we each discover a small, rolled-up note inside our roll when we cut it open. Upon the note is found a riddle, the answer to which reveals the location of the evening’s first gift. We all scurry off around the house to retrieve our gifts and return to the table to open them. We finish the meal before festivities continue. As a child, this felt like standing in front of the toilet after drinking seven strong cups of coffee and being unable to get your pants undone.
After dinner, the real festivities really kick in. This is where it gets to be really fun. Traditionally, the Dutch make what are called “Surprises” (pronounced “sur-pre-sus”) which consist of a gag gift and one or more clues which lead to the actual gift, or a poem. A Surprise with a “gedicht” (poem) makes as much fun of the receiver as possible; no holds barred. The harsher, the better. The receiver then has to read the poem aloud while everyone else listens.
Due to my dad’s position as family alpha-male, he has always been a prime target from all sides. Anyone who knows him knows his lifestyle does not leave a paucity of ammunition. My grandmother has always been particularly good at this, writing such clever poems that we would usually have to take breaks while he read it to catch our breath from the laughing fits. Let me put it this way: sarcasm is not lost on the Dutch.
A Surprise that involves a gag-gift usually needs to be disassembled in order to find the riddle that instructs the receiver of where to find their real gift. A classic example of this was Michelle’s first Sinterklaas with my family. At the time, she was working in a medical research lab as a lab scientist. Michelle received her Surprise from my mother: a small, low dish filled with a green slime with a slip of paper at the bottom. Accompanying it was a note that read, “There’s something fishy in this here petri dishy.” Michelle had to dig through the slime (Jell-o) to get the note out and retrieve her gift.
What is particularly nice about this style of gift-giving is that it really encourages the giving of thoughtful gifts. There is usually less gift-giving, but everyone waits their turn and pays attention to the others while they open their gifts; everyone joins in the enjoyment of each gift as it is being given.
Here is an alternative perspective on Sinterklaas:
In any case, Gelukkig Sinterklaas!