On 5th December it’s Sinterklaas, or pakjesavond, when Dutch families and friends get together and exchange presents, or surprises, as they are known here. It’s traditional to disguise your present as something else. People get very creative, morphing perhaps boring gifts into the most wonderful shapes and harking back to the days when children actually enjoyed playing with the box and wrapping paper more than its contents. A lovely Dutch lady, La Flotte has put some of her festive creations online here. I love the Converse boot and jukebox!
Besides this outpouring of creativity in wrapping the present, the gift-giver is also expected to pen a poem that rhymes, and is a personal message of affection (or annoyance) to the recipient. Poems are signed either Piet or Sint although the recipient actually knows who the real author is. I remember an awkward Sinterklaas when a friend presented her work colleague with a bar of soap and a rhyme, implying he might consider using the soap a bit more often! So, you see, it doesn’t even have to be nice. Loads of internet sites exist now where you can just type in the name of the person, the kind of rhyme you want; romantic, funny or teasing and download a ready made poem. But that’s just plain cheating.
Of course, the kids’ eternal favourite, is Zwarte Piet. Usually a blacked-up young man or woman, dressed in satin knickerbockers and a beret with a feather. He doesn’t give a toss about political correctness or hygiene, he strews pepernoten and other sweets on the floor behind him and kids are always delighted to pick them up and pop them in their mouths. Piet has a wonderfully mischievous, anarchic character in contrast to the rather staid and boring, Sinterklaas. To outsiders it probably seems ludicrous that white people should black-up like this, anno 2012. Supposedly, Piet represents a Spanish Moor, carrying a jute sack to put naughty children in and carry them back to Spain. What happens to them once they arrive there is unclear… But if you have been a good child you have nothing to fear, apart from some bearded religious freak knocking on your door on 5th December, carrying weird-shaped presents and accompanied by ADHD helpers. Or am I taking the whole thing far too literally?