How to do Pakjesavond: A guide for the uninitiated

If you were pounded with weird round little cookies while walking around in Wageningen last weekend, you were lucky enough to witness the long awaited arrival of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands.

Sinterklaas looks very similar to his American counterpart Santa Clause, but with a Bishop’s hat and cloak instead of a Santa suit and a troupe of helpers called Zwarte Piete instead of elves.  It’s these mischievous little characters who throw cookies and sweets while generally mucking about causing chaos. That’s when they’re not running for their lives to escape the hoards of screaming children in hot pursuit.

Sinterklaas’ arrival kicked off a flurry of excitement and indulgence that culminates on Saint Nicholas’ eve on the 5th of December. The evening is called sinterklaasavond or pakjesavond (“presents evening”) and it’s when most people hand out their Christmas gifts. Sometimes they put a shoe in front of the fireplace on the evening of 5th (including a carrot snack for Sinterklaas’ horse), and when they wake up the next morning, the shoe is surrounded by goodies. That is if you’ve been good of course. And Sinterklaas knows, because he always has his big book with him that lists all your sins.

But you don’t need to be a kid, or even Dutch for that matter, to celebrate pakjesavond.Here’s how it works:

  1. Invite a group of people you want to spend pakjesavond with. Swop names, and tell everyone to buy each other a small gift (often silly).
  2. Pakjesavond for adults doesn’t revolve around the gift. Instead, it’s all about the wrapping. The gift is wrapped or hidden in a creative fashion that often has something to do with the person who receives it. The more ridiculous and extreme the wrapping, the funnier.
  3. Each gift is accompanied by a poem. The poem is usually (but not necessarily) written by Sint or Piet, and often pokes fun at a characteristic of the recipient, while giving clues to the gift inside.
  4. Each person reads the poem he received out loud (much to the merriment of everyone gathered). The present is then unwrapped and the gift revealed.
  5. After everyone had the chance to read their poems and unwrap their gifts, the evening is concluded with typical Sinterklaas snacks and board games.

Pakjesavond or sinterklaasavond snacks include those round little cookies, chocolate letters, hot chocolate, pastries filled with almond paste, huge cookie dolls and chocolate Sinterklaas figures wrapped in foil.

So happy Sinterklaasavond! Have fun and get silly! All that chocolate is the best antidote for the crappy winter weather.

Lizelle Smit