challenges of motherhood, Children, Christmas, Culture, Dutch, Expat, Food, Sinterklaas

5 December: Who Has the Rule Book?

For those living in the Netherlands (or Belgium for that matter) you will already know that Sinterklaas in currently in town and the country is gearing up for Pakjesavond on 5 December. That’s present evening to you and me.

Well actually when I say Pakjesavond on the 5th December I actually mean any random evening that falls vaguely near 5 December. And there is the first of my questions about the whole Dutch 5 December thing….. why is it that Pakjesavond can be celebrated any evening it is convenient for families? You can’t move Christmas and celebrate it five days early because it is more convenient. So why is this the case for 5 December?

The answer is obviously related to the fact that 5 December is not a national holiday. Which leads me to my next question: why isn’t 5 December a national holiday, or at least a national half-day holiday?

Instead, everyone has to work but in general heads home early in time for the good Sint to deposit his sack of presents on their doorstep. However, to celebrate Pakjesavond with the whole family it is more convenient to celebrate it during the weekend before. So here’s my next question: how do you explain to children why you are celebrating early when they know that Sinterklaas does his present round on the 5th?

And let’s go back to the beginning, to two Saturdays ago when the white bearded man and his blackened face helpers landed on Dutch soil. It’s a big TV event every year with live coverage of Sinterklaas arriving in a different Dutch town on a boat.


Whilst this is going on on Dutch TV Sinterklaas is simultaneously arriving in other Dutch towns across the length and breadth of the Netherlands. And how is this explained away? My son sums it up:
“The real Sinterklaas is the one on the TV and all the others are ‘help-Sinterklaases'”. Of course. Santa could never pull that one off.

A bowl of kruidnoten which lasts 0.3
seconds in my house
(c) Amanda van Mulligen

From the moment Sinterklaas comes to the Netherlands children are allowed to leave a shoe out by the fireplace (or another random point in the house if you are fireplace-less) with a drawing or poem for Sinterklaas propped in it, as well as a treat for Sinterklaas’ horse. In return a little present is left in the shoe as well as sweets, pepernoten, kruidnoten or other sugary treats. And this is where the next question must be posed. Why do some children get to leave their shoes out almost nightly, whilst other children get one shot at the ritual? Kids talk in school so how is all this reconciled? Do some kids think they have been ‘less good’ than their friends if they aren’t allowed to put their shoes out as many times as their classmates Bart and Emma?

And finally the Sinterklaasjournaal. It’s a daily news program about Sinterklaas related happenings for kids. It’s fun. It really is. A whole fantasy world made into a news show for children. My kids love it. I can use it as a threat motivation to get them ready very quickly for bed. It’s great. Until you think about it.

The Sinterklaas coins that every
Dutch child is on the lookout for
(c) Amanda van Mulligen

The children of the Netherlands are teased for two weeks about whether or not Pakjesavond will go ahead. This year the steamboat loaded with presents is still in Spain. It’s broken. So instead Sinterklaas brought lots of special coins with him from Spain so he could buy presents for the children when he got here. The Dutch economy gets a boost and the kids get their presents. Win-win. Except that it went horribly wrong.

When Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands he gets off the boat and makes a tour around town on his horse whilst his helpers (Zwarte Pieten) thrown pepernoten and kruidnoten and sweets around into the waiting crowds. Only this year the sacks got mixed up and instead of throwing sweets the special coins were thrown (of course this didn’t really happen – it only happened on TV and the good people of Roermond got their fill of sweet goods – didn’t they?). There was of course panic but no fear because the children of the Netherlands were called upon to look for Sinterklaas coins. Any coins found are to be put in their shoe for Zwarte Piet to collect. Problem solved. And so many of the coins have already been recovered. Until they all went missing again until it turned out that Sinterklaas had taken possession of the coins and is now spending them on everything except presents for the children. Are you still with me? (forgive me if things have moved on but we are two evenings behind watching the Sinterklaasjournaal).

Meanwhile children across the country have been and are stressing about whether they will get presents on the 5th December (or the random evening chose by their parents as a substitute). Can you imagine your children worrying about whether Santa has any presents to deliver to them on Christmas Eve, unrelated to whether they have been good or bad? A nationwide conspiracy to tease and stress children out. Why?

Well, because it’s fun. Right? Isn’t it? Well, actually it is and it isn’t. And this year I have heard some serious rumblings of dissatisfaction from parents around me. Such things as “too much stress for the children”, “my children are bouncing off the walls with excitement”, “this whole Sinterklaas thing should be scrapped”, and my favourite, “I can’t wait to see the back of his particular bearded man. I’d happily escort him out of the country myself.”

I have gone from loving the excitement all this brings for my kids to wanting the 5th to hurry up and pass. It’s been a lot of fun singing songs and hearing them excitedly talk about finding Sinterklaas coins in school (and I did manage to get hold of a few in my change doing my grocery shopping even though I always ‘pin’ my shopping – wink, wink, know what I mean?) but the pepernoten rush and the teasing is starting to grow old now. Don’t get me wrong this particular Dutch celebration has grown on me over the years but two and a half weeks of hyped up, sugar injected children is too long. The kids just need to know all will be well, which it will be, because it is every year.

Do you celebrate Sinterklaas? What do you think of this Dutch celebration? Do your kids watch the Sinterklaasjournaal? Share your thoughts and comments!

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4 thoughts on “5 December: Who Has the Rule Book?”

  1. Hi, first time comment here! I think the sinterklaas thing is not meant to be foolproof. All those little hints that things don't add up is why at a certain age every kid starts asking questions, and is let in on “het sinterklaas geheim”. Also, wether or not the date needs to be on the fifth is dependent on your childrens ages. My youngest is two, and hasn't a clue about dates. My oldest is almost 8 and “knows the secret” and cares mostly that he gets his presents. In my opinion, there are only two years (3 and 4 years old) that the kids really go for it. At 5 my son started with the questions, and at six he didn't really believe anymore. As my eldest still loves the fantasy of sinterklaas and religiously follows the journaal with dieuwertje, it is still an enjoyable time. When the youngest doesn't believe anymore, we will switch to christmas celebrations.

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  2. Hi Amanda,
    It was such a pleasure to read your view on Sinterklaas. And you're so right! I linked back to your post, pondering a little more on the subject here: familiesmulders.blogspot.com/2012/12/oh-when-saint-nick-is-marching-in.html. And I was always so happy when it was all over – but now, for the first time, when it'll be only a couple of years more before I will only have 'non-believers', I can kind of immerse in the stress. Except that two-and-a-half weeks indeed is much, much too long…

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  3. Miellyn – welcome!! Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I think you're right – foolproof is not the ultimate plan.
    My eldest is five and he is still fully immersed in the Sinterklaas fantasyy though has started asking questions….. I think we may be lucky if he falls for it next year, but the year after I am sure the cat will be out of the bag (or the monkey out of the sleeve :-)).
    I am actually looking forward to being able to concentrate of the gezelligheid aspect of it all, instead of trying to keep the pretence up!!!!

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