Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Yeah, it is Pakjesavond! ('Pakjes-what?!')

Today, it is the 5th of December, which means it is ‘Pakjesavond’ in my home country Holland! Sinterklaas (also called Sint-Nicolaas in Dutch and Saint Nicolas in French) is a holiday tradition in the Netherlands and Belgium, celebrated every year on Saint Nicholas' eve (December 5).

Traditionally, in The Netherlands adults started to give each other presents on the evening of the 5th; then older children were included and today in my country sometimes even the youngest get presents on the evening of December 5 (Saint Nicholas' eve), known as Sinterklaasavond or Pakjesavond (present evening). After the singing of traditional Sinterklaas songs, there will be a loud knock on the door, and a sack full of presents is found on the doorstep. Alternatively - some improvisation is often called for - the parents 'hear a sound coming from the attic' and then the bag with presents is "found" there. Some parents manage to "convince" Sinterklaas to come to their home personally.

Sinterklaas traditionally arrives each year in November by steamboat from Spain, and is then paraded through the streets, welcomed by cheering and singing children. Invariably, this event is broadcast live on national television in the Netherlands and Belgium. His 'Zwarte piet'
helpers throw candy and small, round ginger bread-like cookies, 'kruidnoten' or 'pepernoten', into the crowd. The children welcome him by singing traditional Sinterklaas songs. Sinterklaas also visits schools, hospitals and shopping centres. After this arrival all towns with a dock have their own intocht van Sinterklaas (arrival of Sinterklaas)
Another aspect of "pakjesavond" are the small poems people make. When children become too old to believe in Sinterklaas, they will be introduced to a different form of entertainment during this night. People will write small personal poems for friends and family usually accompanied by a small gift or candy. This way it is also entertaining for parents and other adults. Students usually write teasing and embarrassing stories for each other. But this is expected and is received in good spirit, so it is usually good fun!

Sinterklaas is the basis for the North American figure of Santa
who later was 're-designed' to match a cola company's needs in the 20th Century. It was during the American War of Independence, that the Roman-Catholic inhabitants of New York, a former Dutch colonial town (‘New ) which had been swapped by the Dutch for other territories, reinvented their Sinterklaas tradition, who was regarded as an alternative for the "Irish Catholic" Saint Patrikc. The name Santa Claus is derived from older Dutch Sinte Klaas.