Happy strange holiday!

December 5, 2009

So my parents are career ex-pats, and I mostly grew up in Holland. Which is mostly a pretty cool place where everyone is very tall and zips around town on bicycles and is tolerant and skeptical.

(I know “Holland” makes you think of drugs and hookers but really that’s just because YOU YOURSELF are interested in these topics. Actual Dutch people are polite and speak outstanding English and think that Americans are crazy and all twisted up in knots about boring topics like SEX and MARIJUANA.)

Today, December 5th, is a big deal in Holland. It is Sinterklaas, which is the main traditional winter gift-giving holiday there. Sinterklaas is also the name of the dude who brings the gifts. Sinterklaas is a smooshing-together of the fellow’s name, Sint Nikolaas (Saint Nicholas). He looks like this:

Could take Santa in a fight.

He is the bishop of Turkey.

But he comes to Holland on a steam boat (In most towns, a boat will actually show up down by the river and a guy dressed like the Sint (plus horse and entourage) will disembark. This is MUY EXCITING if you’re seven years old.) from Spain. Where he lives. I don’t know why. Maybe Turkey lacks glamor.

He rides a white horse:

Something to know about this guy is that he’s kind of mean! Unlike jolly Saint Nick (I guess Santa Claus is a fatter, drunker version of this guy) Sinterklaas is pretty stern and terrible. If you’ve been a good little boy or girl, he’ll bring you treats. If you’ve been bad, he’ll bring you “roe”: a bundle of sticks I guess your parents can use to spank you. If you’ve been VERY bad, he’ll STUFF YOU IN A SACK AND DRAG YOU BACK TO SPAIN.

On the night of Sinterklaas, “pakjesavond” (um, “the night of little packages”), you give gifts. Most families would traditionally draw names so that everyone was just giving one gift to one other person, and the gifts are usually pretty small. The point of pakjesavond isn’t so much the gifts as it is the “surprises” (pronounce in the French wise) – people make these crazy-elaborate… I don’t know how to explain this. You have to write a poem about the person you’re giving the gift to (and the poems are usually funny and mean) and then you package the gift in this elaborately creative… disguise. I DON’T KNOW HOW TO EXPLAIN THIS. I TOLD YOU. But like if you were giving someone a book and the person was notorious for needing reading glasses, maybe you’d make this giant fake book out of cardboard with giant letters on it and everyone would go “Ha ha ha! Because the gift recipient is basically BLIND! Ha ha ha… awesome.”

On the night before Sinterklaas, you “put out your shoe”. Much like the American tradition of stockings, you’d put it near a fireplace if you could, and you’d find little treats in it in the morning. If you don’t have a fireplace, you might put it near a radiator or something.

Treats brought by Sinterklaas include things like:

Chocolate letters.

Tasty citrus.

Pepper nuts: hey are tiny and hard and they throw them at you and they sting.

Here is the most amazing part about Sinterklaas. His servants are guys named “Zwarte Piet” (“Black Pete” – you can maybe see where this is going.)

Zwarte Piet is usually explained to look the way he does because he’s Moorish. Sometimes people say that it’s because he spends time in chimneys, either sweeping them or going up and down them to drop off candy in peoples’ shoes.

Most Americans would probably look at Zwarte Piet and gasp and say, in an appalled undertone, “But– he’s in blackface!”


They all have the same name, and the number of them depends. They’re understood to be both a single person and a group of people: like Walt Whitman, Zwarte Piet is large, he contains multitudes.

The other interesting thing about Sinterklaas is that often a family will get like a neighbor or an uncle to pretend to be the Sint and come around the house and bang loudly on the door and then open it and fling TINY HARD CANDIES AND COOKIES into the house and also a bag of gifts.

THIS SCARES THE SHIT OUT OF YOU IF YOU ARE A LITTLE KID. Like little kids will somewhat understandably freak the hell out and start screaming and crying, because some mean angular white dude is going to beat you with sticks and shove you into a bag and take you to Spain or Turkey or something, man! Also his entourage/possible slaves throw tiny hard cookies at you and that shit hurts.

Anyway – I wanted to wish you all a HAPPY SINTERKLAAS!


7 Responses to “Happy strange holiday!”

  1. Dean Says:

    I so look forward to getting my annual chocolate D!

  2. Anna Says:

    It is a totally strange holiday and one, moreover, that even after 20 years of experiencing some elements of it, are still mystifying. Not like Christmas, which minus church influence is pretty straightforward! And regarding chocolate letters, alas, this year we missed the boat!

  3. jengod Says:

    Happy belated Sinterklaas. This post is DEFRICKINGLIGHTFUL. You must include it in your forthcoming compilation-of-humorous-essays book.

  4. Luann Iker Says:

    Hello. I assume you dont mind me commenting in your blog. I would like to contact you however I could not find your contact details. I would like to subscribe to your blog but I unable to locate your RSS subscription link! thanks…

  5. Brady Ni Says:

    Thanks for making my morning a little bit better with this great article!!

  6. Elisabeth Says:

    I know your post is a year old – but I stumbled across it this year and am still laughing. Thank you for the very accurate and funny description of one of my favorite holidays. Have my chocolate letters ready for all my family and friends, and hope to heck I don’t get dragged back to Spain.

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