Pakjesavond is always a lot of fun. It might be the evening when Sinterklaas delivers all his presents to the children of Holland but it is also an opportunity for older family members to play pranks on each other with joke gifts and fun poems. For my Dutch family-in-law it is specifically a chance for them to highlight unintentional mistakes and mishaps made throughout the year.
On the first pakjesavond I celebrated with them I received over 20 toothbrushes, individually wrapped, ranging from child to adult toothbrushes, all because on the first weekend I’d visited I had forgotten to bring my own toothbrush. A few years later I was given a survival bag as a way of making fun of my accident prone nature (which they had become very familiar with).
So when my Dutch mother-in-law specifically requested no candles or candle related items this year (because she gets them every year) I knew my chance for revenge was at hand. I decided not to listen to her request. I decided to do the opposite and made this…
It’s a life size replica of Sinterklaas’ staff. The only difference between this one and the real one is that this one is made of paper and card. It is also filled with 106 tea light candles. The moment it was opened all 106 candles fell out on to the ground.
Revenge is a dish best served on Pakjesavond.
Once a year during November Sinterklaas arrives in The Netherlands and brings with him his helpers the Zwarte Pieten. The black face paint of Zwarte Piet often causes a few raised eyebrows from those who are not familiar with the tradition. In recent years there has been a lot of debate about whether or not the look of Sinterklaas’ trusted helper should be changed. There have been a few attempts at creating alternative Zwarte Pieten; Blue Piet, White Piet and even Rainbow Piet. None have fully taken off yet but here are a few alternative Zwarte Piet whacky suggestions of my own which I think might help:
Alternative Zwarte Piet:
Do you have any other alternative Zwarte Piet suggestions?
I slowly crept up the stairs using all the stealth skills that I like to think I have but don’t. The sack over my shoulder made an awkward rustling sound as one of the gifts inside shifted. It struck me that burlap sacks are not the best option when you are trying to carry something quietly. However, they are part of the tradition. The Piet hat that I was wearing was also part of the tradition. I didn’t actually have to wear it since I would not be seen but I’d wanted to wear it anyway.
I reached the top of the stairs and slowly lowered the sack, placing it quietly against the front door of our upstairs neighbours (as asked). Slowly and carefully I drew my hands back from the sack but kept them just a few inches away for a moment, as if trying to mentally will the sack to stay in place. Once I was satisfied that it was not going anywhere I slowly stood up and began to turn around. At that moment the sack suddenly decided to make a break for it. It began sliding sideways down the door, threatening to send toys crashing down the stairs.
In a clumsy, frantic movement I quickly grabbed the falling sack just in time and froze. Staying as still as possible I listened. Had I been heard? Was my cover blown? Would I have to leg it? If I was caught in a position like this the neighbours would either have to explain the reality of the situation to their children or tell them that buurman Stuart had just been caught trying to steal toys.
When a moment had passed without the sounds of children running towards the door I quietly repositioned the bag, making sure it would not fall again and breathed a sigh of relief. I imagined this is what bomb disposal experts feel like when they are trying not to blow themselves up.
With everything in place I took a handful of pepernoten out of my pocket and got ready for stage two. I’d been asked to bang on the door as loud as I could to, “really scare the shit out of the kids.” Given the way the apartment building stairwell echoed I was probably about to really scare the shit out of everyone else in the building as well. Luckily, it was pakjesavond so they would probably realize it was a Piet delivering toys… hopefully.
I raised my free hand back as far as I could and then brought it crashing down on the door. Boom! Boom! Boom! Three times. Damn it hurt my hand. They have a hard door. I had no time to think about the pulsating in my hand. I had to get out of there before the door was opened by very excited (and maybe slightly terrified) children. I started running down the stairs, tripped, grabbed the banister and somehow managed used the momentum to swing myself around to the second set of stairs. It would have been graceful if it had not looked so clumsy.
From my new position I waited, out of view. My escape exit back into our own apartment was close but there was one last thing to do; The pepernoten! From above I heard the door open and I flung the pepernoten upwards in an arc in the general direction next to it. I couldn’t see my target so I could only hope that I didn’t accidentally take out a surprised child’s eye with a flying pepernoten. The lack of screaming told me I had not.
As the children gasped in amazement at the sacks of gifts (and the pepernoten that had just been thrown at them by a fleeing Piet) I slowly crept back into our apartment as my wife (Piet accomplice) quietly closed the door behind me. For a while we listened to the children’s reactions from behind the closed door and giggled.
“Dank u Sinterklaasje! Dank u Piet!” the children shouted from upstairs.
“PIET!” shouted our daughter from next to us as she pointed in excitement at the hat I was wearing.
It was the first time I had ever been asked to stand in for a Piet. I think this officially means I work for Sinterklaas now. At the very least it must mean that I am more integrated into Dutch culture now. What do you think?
November and December can be a very confusing time of year for expats in Holland, especially for those who have never heard the name Sinterklaas or seen a Zwarte Piet before.
Who is Sinterklaas?
If you were to ask a Dutch Person who Sinterklaas is the basic description you’d receive would be something along the lines of, “He is a very nice old man who has a long white beard, dresses in red and gives presents in December to all the good girls and boys.”
Sinterklaas vs. Santa
Whatever you do, do not follow this up by asking them how that makes him any different from Santa, not unless you want to seriously damage diplomatic relations between Holland and your own country. Santa and Sinterklaas are two very different people. They just happen to work in the same area of business. There are several very key differences for identifying them:
1) Santa Claus comes from the North Pole but Sinterklaas comes from Spain and saves money on his yearly heating bill.
2) Santa Claus dresses in red with a fluffy white trim but Sinterklaas goes with the slightly more fashionable gold trim and accessorizes with a staff.
3) Santa Claus delivers presents on the night of December 24th but Sinterklaas arrives in Holland in the middle of November, does some sightseeing, delivers presents on the 5th of December and returns home in time to enjoy a quiet Christmas.
4) Santa Claus flies to his destination but Sinterklaas arrives by steam boat. It is still unknown if this difference is because Sinterklaas is afraid of flying or Santa is afraid of water.
5) Santa Claus rides on a sledge pulled by 12 over worked reindeer but Sinterklaas rides a single white horse called Amerigo, saves money on animal feed and has to remember less names.
6) Santa Claus puts presents for children under a Christmas tree but Sinterklaas puts presents in children’s shoes regardless of how smelly they are.
7) Santa Claus has an elf equal opportunities program which has helped keep the fairytale creature unemployment rate down. Sinterklaas also has an equal opportunities program and employs Zwarte Pieten who suffer from A.D.D and regularly get their shoe polish mixed up with their face cream.
8) Santa Claus gives a lump of coal to children who have been naughty so that they might learn from their mistakes. Sinterklaas on the other hand has a zero tolerance policy and orders Zwarte Piet to throw naughty children into a sack and drag them back to Spain while beating them with twigs.
Looking for more? Find a full list of all humorous sinterklaas guides and posts right here:
All About Sinterklaas