The Dutch are currently in the throes of their most beloved holiday. Over the next few days many a Dutchie will be putting pen to paper (or keyboard to screen) in an attempt to write the perfect Sinterklaasgedicht (Sinterklaas poems).

While endlessly debating Zwarte Piet (yes, even we foreigners have grown tired of it) the Dutch will adamantly tell you that this holiday is “all about the children”. But don’t be fooled, those fully-grown Dutchies love themselves some Sinterklaas just as much as their mini-me’s!

The 18+ version of Sinterklaas however, has a few more twists and turns – namely booze, “surprises” (pronounced surpreees) and gedichten (poems). Family (or friends) draw names for the receiver of their gift & poem on surpriseavond (surprise night). The surprise is a cheap small gift wrapped in a home-made-craft-project-of-sorts; the paper packaging made to represent a hobby/passion of the gift receiver. Like football? You may just get a 3-foot orange paper jersey! Need a new bike? Guess what? You’re not getting one – but here’s a cardboard version!

I find myself torn between appreciating this very Dutch tradition for its enormous creativity and questioning it for its suspicious thriftiness. Is the overly elaborate home-made packaging just a way to fancy up an otherwise cheap gift? 😉  A proverbial ‘pig in lipstick’?

Regardless, we have yet to get to the juiciest bit of the evening – the poems! What fun would a truly Dutch tradition be if it didn’t involve a little bit of passive-aggressive Dutch directness? To paraphrase our good friend Mr.Wiki “a traditional Sinterklaas poem highlights the less positive traits of its subject in a friendly/joking manner.” Yes, these poems gently (or sometimes not so gently) poke fun at the victim subject in a humorously sarcastic way.

Trust those Dutchies to use a festive holiday as a means for ‘keeping it real‘! In fact, it’s essentially the principle of “doe normaal” set to rhymes. Think your cousin is a bit too braggy about all that money he makes? Now’s the chance to tell him you aren’t so impressed – in a sing-songy note!  A recipe for disaster or just plain good fun? I suppose it depends on the company you keep! 

And so dear readers, stay tuned as we’re busy composing our poem to YOU! In the meantime, have you got a great one to share? Were grudges held after a particularly harsh gedicht? ‘Tis the season of the sarcastic sonnet!

p.s. still need a gift? Look no further!

50 Responses

  1. Dutchie

    Surprises are not about being cheap it is about being creative! Lot’s of nationalities could learn from that!! Here in UK with Christmas they do Secret Santa. A, the budget of 5 pounds is way too cheap, B, just wrap up the present- No “surprise” or poem…- BORING! With these days I truly miss Holland!

    Reply
  2. Thorwald

    with “surprises” for adults it isnt about the gifts, but about the “crafts project” and the poem of course..anything goes because its not you saying it but sinterklaas 😉

    Reply
    • mu

      @Dutchie @Thorwald And that’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!

      The present in de “surprise” are 9 out of 10 times not practical but typically for the receiver. It is all about having fun together.

      Reply
  3. Marjon Reinders

    The other way adult people tend to do a Sinterklaas party nowadays is by buying as much as five or six small gifts per person. Wrap them in paper (no gedichten, no surprises) put them all on one pile and throw dice. 1 = take a present from the pile 2 = unwrap a present in your pile 3 = take a present from your left neighbour’s pile and add it to your right neighbour’s pile 4 = take three presents from your pile and add them to the pile of the person in front of you etc etc (you can invent the rules the way that suits you best)
    My 18 year old son prefers this way because he thinks he only is able to make lousy surprises – and it costs a lot less time and is as much fun because everybody puts a lot of effort in finding presents that will be either popular by everybody or truly horrible, so everybody wants to get rid of them… It ‘s a lot of fun during the night although I myself miss the reative pleasure of making surprises and gedichten.

    Reply
  4. Ingrid Kaldeway O'Connell

    I don’t know exactly what it says, but my Grandmother always had a Dutch tile (y’all know what those are) beside her front door that said something to the effect of, “Come on, wife, let’s go to bed so our guests can go home.” I love Dutch sarcasm. My Grandmother (who is almost 96 and now has some trouble with short-term memory) still to this day has that sarcastic wit about her. 🙂

    Reply
    • Helena Weremans

      Ingrid, I think that tile has something to do with the Dutch and their sticking to their habits. When they go to bed each night at ten, and they get (unexpected) visitors, they start thinking at 9.45 “how do we get rid of our guests so we can go to bed in time”. Instead of being upfront and say: you have to leave now, we want to go to bed, what you would expect from the Dutch, they start cleaning up the coffee cups. In satiric (is this English? I mean with satire) sketches on tv for example, they even put on there pajamas while their guests keep on talking.

      Reply
  5. Dutch girl

    The poems are the best part of whole Sinterklaas!! haha

    Reply
  6. A.

    I need to do three of these surprise things + one real present with the poem and I’m totally lost and hating this tradition. No way I’m doing a craft thing, never been good with this things and would have no fun at all doing it. Sorry dutchies, I love many things of your country but this is really giving me too much stress. I’m not having fun buying things, I will not definitely have fun writing the stupid poem and I will want to run away when they open my presents and say with they super nice directness that they’re crap. I would rather buy normal presents for everybody and that’s it. You say it’s boring? Yeah, probably, but at least I would be using my time (and also the money) to get something nice and useful.

    Reply
    • Dutchie

      Sorry to hear you can not appreciate the Dutch culture. It is all about having fun in a creative way. Just think about something special about the person. What does he/she like? If someone goes through so much effort for you I’m sure you would like to return the favor? Lots of ideas on internet, same for poems. Beats the endless boring dinner parties as Thanksgiving and Christmas.. Or the cheap Secret Santa which is so impersonal.

      Reply
      • A.

        Who says I can not appreciate the Dutch culture? I like a lot of things here, and it’s fine for me that you have this suprise thing. Just saying this ‘tradition’ it’s not for me! You say it’s all about having fun, and the problem is that I don’t have any fun (stress, instead) preparing this (and as I can see in a commemt below, I’m not the only one). As for returnig the favor, I’d rather not recieve anything than having to do the same in exchange. I’m not the kind of person who does things to get something back, but because I feel like doing it!
        PS: I love my endless Christmas dinners with my family, the ones you find boring 🙂

    • Lynn

      So sorry to hear that, it’s not supposed to give you THAT much stress, it’s supposed to be fun stress!
      I remember one time the friend of a friend was busy preparing and getting anxious about the zeurprise, she had decided to use a carton box to make a house for the receiver bc it was always “sweet fall-in” at her place. (=zoete inval). The thing she concocted really sucked, so me & my sister just shoved her out of the way and took over, We decorated that tv-box as one had never seen, put up windows, drapes, ivy, picket fence, doorbel, whatever you could imagine. She told us the next day that is was a huge succes on their Pakjesavond! (The receiver was her future mother-in-law)

      So, here’s some advice for next year:
      – find yourself one or two partners in crime to help you out with finding, wrapping presents, making zeurprises and poems. This could prove difficult as die-hard Sint-fans tend to insist vigorously that everyone MUST make their own stuff. So you might have to talk as brugman to convince them you need help, and you’re allowed to use bribes or blackmail to ensure their cooperation (some really crappy gift for your targets might do the trick already…)
      – get one of those *handy* (maar niet echt) poem-generators books or CD-Roms.
      – Use the Internet! Put up an online search for short silly crappy poems.
      – You will surely get a laugh if you mix up Dutch and english (or whatever other language is your native tongue) in your poem.
      – idem to get help with the zeurprises, think about offering some barter deal.
      – If you can’t beat them, join them! By now everybody will probably know that you’re not (yet) into loving this crazy tradition, so why fight it. Be proud of your stilted poems, copy used ones and exaggerate with messed up zeurprises so that THAT will become your signature Sint-gift- & surprise-giving modus operandus.

      BTW:
      “Yeah, probably, but at least I would be using my time (and also the money) to get something nice and useful.”
      Pakjesavond is so totally NOT about getting nice and useful things. ! 😉

      I hope next year you will manage through the season with a little more confidence, and maybe enough trust in your lousy creativity. Remember: no one needs to be perfect, especially not for Sint. (’cause he already knows!)

      Reply
      • Lynn

        Oops… that was some crappy copy & paste in my comment. It should read:
        – Use the Internet! Put up an online search for short silly crappy poems.
        – idem to get help with the zeurprises, think about offering some barter deal.

  7. Laura K Ockelkorn

    I’m so sick of this damn holiday. I just spent 2 hours making my son’s surprise for school because he was clueless. He helped me but it was really all on me. I just made candy in the shape of an owl and taped the SHIT out of it all. Tell me this is acceptable? I don’t even care anymore. Why do KIDS have to do this for a damn school assignment?!

    Reply
  8. Marion van der Donk

    It’s not always about buying lots of cheap presents. It depends very much on (family) relationships and circumstances and the poems are mostly good-natured banter. Sometimes with a bit of sting if you deserve it….. when I was a teenager I had a long wishlist which contained, amongst other things, ice skates and a fountain pen. Well, I got both: the long-waited for skates were hidden in a huge, truly well-made cardboard fountain pen (done by my father) with a poem that I deserved! It told me that I better buy my own fountain pen, because I broke one every year and I was no longer getting them from my parents! And I can tell you, I’ve never once felt sorry for myself. The present (my ice skates) was fantastic and the message I understood…. Another great one I remember is a ‘surprise’ I received from my brother when I happened to be in Holland in the mid-nineties. I was a mature age student in environmental science and he’d hidden my present in one of those ‘glass containers’. You know, the ones in which you deposit your glass for recycling. I cannot remember the present, but I’ve kept that container for years…. To me it all represents some good, old-fashioned fun.

    Reply
  9. swhite44

    I wrote a brilliant poem once for a girl who always grabbed the big soft white comfortable chair at gatherings while her husband ran around getting food and drink for her. I bought a hair brush gift to go with the poem, but she threw it angrily into the bin!
    Is it too personal?

    Here I sit
    In the soft white chair
    With a satisfied smile
    And inquisitive air.

    As I watch new arrivals
    Seeking a seat,
    I know my firm berth
    Is full and complete.

    With plump white cushions,
    So pleasantly deep
    It’s lucky I’m hungry
    Or I’d soon be asleep.

    I’ll be here all night
    With scarce but a care,
    So fetch me a drink Dave
    While I mind the chair.

    Reply
      • David

        Yes we Australians can be pretty sarcastic too…

    • Selvinas

      I think it’s funny but I can understand the girl not liking it. Unless she is aware of her ”habit” and jokes about it herself.
      I think for these kind of poems the recipient needs to have a certain amount of ”zelfspot”(joking about yourself) to not get offended.

      Reply
      • swhite44

        Yes and she’s a pretty solid citizen so the food bit probably rubbed her the wrong way.

    • Jasper

      That sounds just right 🙂 She prob. has no idea how to react.. 😉

      Reply
  10. Corine

    Don’t agree: the purpose of the poems is FUN! And yes, you will read it in your poem when you have pulled a pretty stupid stunt. However, the rule is: if you can’t say it to someone in person, you should not put in in the poem!! Very cowardly and no contribution to the fun. Oh and I don’t know if the author listens to the news around St. Nicholas? Many millions are spent on presents!

    Reply
  11. Chris Hanegraaff, from the Netherlands

    You guys all seem to forget about the drawing lots (lootjes trekken) in adult Sinterklaas celebrating. As my family used to celebrate Sinterklaas is like this: The youngest children still believing in Sinterklaas sang Sinterklaas songs every night just before bedtime after putting there shoes (only one each) with a carrot or a drawing and of course a wishlist near the chimney or a central heating from the day Sinterklaas officially arrived by steamboat somewhere in Holland. Every year in an other place. And always about 3 weeks (around November 17th) before Sinterklaasavond (Sinterklaas evening) also and better known as Pakjesavond (parcel or present evening), the day all gifts are unpacked. In case of a carrot in shoe mother always made sure there wer enough carrots because they were used the next day to make Hutspot. When kids were asleep the parents took out the shoegifts for Sinterklaas and left some candy or a little shoepresent in stead as a thank you from Sinterklaas. But we did not always find a filled shoe the next morning. That was one of the surprises; would there be something in it or not. The children who were aware of the not really existing Sinterklaas and the adults drew lots about a month before Pakjesavond. On each lot was a name and also his or her wishlist so it always was a surprise who you had drawn this year. There was a budget spoken for to buy things from (say 25 euro; guilders back then) so no one would get more in value than an other. The parents bought the presents for the youngest and also wrote the poems and made the surpises (the creative crafts work) next to the same for the person they had drawn. The others only had to worry about their own lot and ‘victim’. Then the big time of secrecy came. For about a month doors of dormrooms and closets were kept closed and if possible locked. Everyone was busy buying, crafting and writing poems and made sure no one could suddenly come in the room. All in secret harmony. Then it was the day of Pakjesavond and always there were some who weren’t ready with their presents somehow at the time that was spoken for to begin. Most of the years we began about an hour late. Each and everyone went to there secret present-hiding place (in turns) to get there creations and put them in a box or sack or bag. In turns so that nobody knew who had made what. In the meantime one of the adults played on the piano while the others sang a lot of Sinterklaas songs to kill the time of exitement and waiting for wat was to come. When everyone was ready and all presents were there one of the adults first brought the presents to a neighbour who was in the plot. Then he or she banged on the livingroom door, opened it just far enough to put a black gloved hand through and then flung a mixture of ginger snaps, spice nuts and candies into the room. While everyone (mostly the youngsters) went picking up all the candy from the floor from all corners the adult thrower did the same at the diningroom door and once again at hte livingroom door. Then it was the time for the neighbour who was asked to knock really loudly on the back door, put a part of the presents just outside the door. And when the family went to the back door to see if Sinterklaas or Zwarte Piet could be seen a glimps of they did not of course but saw a lot of presents in stead. In the meantime the neighbours ran to the front door and rang the door bell a few times very long and left the rest of the presents just outside. Sometimes they did it twice to make it even more exiting and magic. The whole family was puzzled about so many presents but even more about no one ever seeing Sinterklaas or Zwarte Piet. How did they do that without being noticed? How was all that possible? Of course the non believers knew but played along for the youngsters. Then all presents and surprises were brought into the diningroom and all sat in around the dining table; the pile of presents close by. First there was coffee and hot chocalatemilk with a piece of warmed Banketletter (almond pastry letter). Then we finally could begin receiving, reading poems, often tearing apart the craftswork (which was deliberately made to do so so that was ok) and at last unwrapping the present. Often mum took care of the drinks and snacks and dad was responsible for handing out the presents. Always watching that everyone got one present at a time and all in turns so no one had to wait too long to get something. The youngest always got a bit more and a bit bigger or more expensive than the others for it is a childrens feast. Mother always made sure that everyone got a chocolate letter. Sometimes there was a name on a package which was not wrapped in craftswork and had no poem. Then it was simply unwrapping it BUT beware… it very well could be that there was another wrapping paper with another name on it and still no poem. Then the present was to handed over to that person. That could go on with one present for 4 or 5 times before finally ther was a poem. Then you knew that the present was for him or her. Sometimes there was only a poem or more likely a riddle which described a place somewhere else in the hous where a gift was to be found. In such cases the present existed of more things and so there were as much riddles as there were presents from that one gift. The it was common use to let the ‘victim’ fetch there things in a certain following order. So the riddles were numbered accordingly. Which meant that i.e. you first got riddle numbered 4 you had to wait reading it untill you had numbers 1 to 3 first. Then you had to go all over the house to get everything together and only then unwrap everything. Or a variation on that. During the whole evening there was a lot of laughter and singing and eating candy and spice nuts. We ahd a big family and starting Pakjesavond around 7 pm we often ended after midnight. Later in the evening when everyone got a bit thirsty and hungry there was some lemonade and wine and a self made salade or things like bitterballen or kroketten (also self made by mum). When everything was read and unwrapped we all got our presents together and put them on our own stack. The things we were most happy with went right along to the bedroom. Next day was not sleeping in but getting up early to play with new toys or otherwise enjoy our newly gotten things. Oh happy times. By the way: everybody thinks that December 5th is Sinterklaas’ birthday. Actually it is the day he passed away.

    Reply
  12. Jaap

    I know making fun about or teasing your friends is not very common in the US or Canada but it is normal in pretty much anywhere else in the western world. I assume you have been to the UK and possibly Australia and NZ as well and there you will find exactly the same if not worse. Pretty much the same applies for the rest of the European continent.

    Reply
    • Justaperson

      Mmm… It really depends on how well you know the person, we tend to tease an make fun of people we are the closest to here in the USA.

      Reply
  13. busydarling

    Sadly, all my efforts to be bad were wasted. Sint and Piet did not take me to Spain with them!

    And learn from my fail:
    Keep it real, keep it dull. This is not the time to introduce them to South-African humor….

    Reply
  14. Miep

    the poems are often not teasing at all, but cryptic about the gift and the surprise so to make the person who gets it guess whats in it

    Reply
    • frank

      well, we did NOT spare each other a good clean-over, and days and evenings before some of us were stressy to find the right rhyme… fromage 10 or 12 we were supposed to make a small gedicht (poem) to our presents, and free to express yourself . A very good creative exercise in giving and receiving critics, and doing this with a big smile! I regret that this part is neglected too much now, live seems more superficial and fast.o

      Reply
  15. Lyn

    Love the post, but ‘surprise’ in pronounced ‘surpreeesu’ (The u as in luck (well, almost)), and it means ‘surprise’, as well as
    ‘gift’….

    Reply
  16. Speculaasjes | Elsje goes Traveling

    […] explanation for you non-Dutchies). But I do know that Sinterklaas himself left a package (with a poem!) for me in Rotterdam which I’m look forward to open in 17 days! Today, however, in a flash of […]

    Reply
  17. Loes Wolleswinkel

    love all the different reactions above, especially the description of a family Sinterklaasavond! I recognised almost everything, we did things much the same. Our family was always bigger on poems than on surprises (although we have concocted some memorable ones over the years!) and as we had no presents this year, my children and I had a hilarious evening re-reading a lot of old poems .

    Reply
  18. Lynn

    The surprise I remember most fondly was for my then-BF.
    One year I got him a Mens-erger-je-niet game. Because he could be a little onsportief sometimes And yes… all year when we played and he lost… like a 6 year old kid he would behave.
    So the year after… this is what I made him: a 10cm dice (dobbelsteen), with 6 eyes on all the sides! Made from a simple wooden block. And the accompanying poem did refer to all the games played during the year, and how frustrated he would get bc the dice would not give him the 6 he wanted! Sint acknowledged in the poem that he had givien a gift that was faulty, so here’s the patch for the problem.

    Reply
  19. Lynn

    And the other gift, this was a really useful one.
    My then-BF loved sweets, one of his favorite was KitKat. Out of cardboard and colored paper I made a 40cm Kitkat, and the poem teased him about his sweet-tooth and that every candy bar would be gobbled up in no time. So here’s one candy bar that will last you the whole year!
    The present inside the cardboard KitKat, you may have guessed it already: a calender.

    Reply
  20. Invader_Stu

    This year my Father-in-Law wrapped a huge box and wrote a massive poem and what was the gift… a single pepernoten at the bottom of the box.

    Reply
  21. Ralph

    I love this site, it is so true/funny/horrible/shameful/feeling of pride at the same time and can relate to the most of it. I am Dutch but living in Indonesia, which in my opinion is almost opposite of the Dutch culture (even though having history here 🙂 ). I never knew my own culture as good as when I read this site, its an eye opener on many aspects.

    Reply
    • Dita

      Haha, I know right? It’s like we Indonesians are unconsciously trying hard to become the exact opposite of the Dutch 😀 Btw why not make a blog like this about the Indonesians? Reading articles about today’s culture of Indonesians from a Dutch person would be super fun 😀

      Reply
  22. Pete

    “…a means for ‘keeping it real.”. At least the Dutch learned the lesson. At great expense. No longer we’re not given to pipe-dreams of conquering the world and have nothing to show for it, like the Americans.
    The Brits and Dutch tried, at great expense, and couldn’t either.
    The Chinese won’t not be able too. You cannot fight people on their own turf. They’ll wear you down. Eventually.
    Reality? Yes, and face it.

    Reply
  23. Optimel

    The presents aren’t cheap at all! Maybe your friends give cheap presents but most Dutch people don’t even care about that as long as the present is great to have because most people do make a wish list. If you want a chocolate bar or a new toothbrush, you’ll get it.
    Besides that, there’s also Christmas and New Year’s Eve to think about. Not everything’s about money, but the presents usually aren’t cheap. 🙁 I just bought an antique cupboard for my mother. Not cheap.

    Reply
  24. Marion Schuller

    One year, when my brother was 16, I gave him a Playboy subscription. I made a very pink (toilet paper) papier mache full size nude woman as the surprise with a suitably sarcastic poem. I enjoyed every second of that, not so sure about him….He retaliated many years later by sending me a gevulde speculaas Sara for my fiftieth. :-))

    Reply
  25. Lilith

    I love writing the poems. We always stay friendly and it’s more about teasing them.
    For example you give them a stylus-pen for their Iphone, but the poem goes;

    Sometimes we look around, but we can’t find Cindy anywhere,
    She’s not behind her desk, not on the phone, not on her chair.
    All her collegues look under tables, on their knees so much it hurts,
    But then we hear some noises; She’s on the toilet playing Angry birds.

    Because Cindy loves those birds a lot, sometimes more than her work,
    And Saint Nicolas fully understands, because the copymachine can be a real jerk.
    But still he was a bit torn and worried, what if I give her that desired ‘stylus-pen’?
    Maybe she will leave to the toilet, playing Angry Birds and never to be seen again?

    But Saint Nicolas trusts you will do just fine and only play the game at home or in the car,
    So here you’ve got your Stylus-pencil, go on with your angry-birds-against-pigs war.

    Saint Nicolas.

    (I just freestyled that in about 15 minutes)

    Reply

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