Thursday, 5 December 2013

A Guide to Pakjesavond in the Netherlands (aka 5 December)

Today is pakjesavond in the Netherlands which is the evening that St Nicholas' birthday is celebrated. It literally means parcel or present evening. What it means in reality is an evening of gezelligheid. It's an evening when friends and family get together, eat together, exchange gifts and play games together.

Pakjesavond with young children in the house is very different to a pakjesavond with older children or adults around. With a six, three and two year old in house I'll share what our pakjesavond looks like.

A 'pizzarette'
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First we eat together: sometimes we gourmet or fondue with us all around the table, last year I made pancakes and tied them up to look like Sinterklaas's sack and this year we have invested in a pizzarette. It is basically a pizza oven for on the dining table and everyone creates their own small pizza and then puts it under the pizza dome to cook. I have a feeling my kids will love this! The essence of the pakjesavond mealtime is fun and together.

Once we have finished eating we sit together in the living room and sing Sinterklaas songs, as loud as we can. The harder we sing, the more likely it is that Sinterklaas and his Piets will pay us a visit. There is a loud knocking on the door, which is then opened slightly, enough for a gloved hand to sneak through and throw kruidnoten, taai taai, pepernoten and sweets - all traditional Dutch Sinterklaas lekkernijen. Then the door closes (our children stop screaming and crying and realise that the floor is covered in sweet things for them to eat) and the children scurry around and collect anything edible from the floor and stuff their faces with as much as they can. Then the penny clicks that Sinterklaas has been and they rush to the hall to find a sack of presents for them.

We spend the rest of the evening opening presents and playing with new things until little ones are rubbing their eyes and complaining of stomach ache and it is clearly time for bed.

So here's a summary of what you need for a pakjesavond with small children:

1. Presents
2. A sack – to put all the presents in
3. A knowledge of Sinterklaasliedjes (songs) – for the children to sing to encourage St. Nicholas and his entourage to visit their house
4. A friendly neighbour or a fast moving parent (or you can even hire a Sinterklaas or Piet) – to play Sint's helper Piet
5. A door or a door bell– for Sint’s helper to knock on/ ring
6. A black glove – for Piet to wear on the hand that will appear through the door
7. Pepernoten, kruidnoten and other sweets designed to give any child a sugar injection – for Piet to throw through a crack in the door with his gloved hand

Traditional Dutch Sinterklaas biscuits - kruidnoten
You can of course make your own kruidnoten - there's a simple, great recipe and explanation about typically Dutch ingredients right here.

If the children are older, or the company is entirely made up of adults the evening looks very different. It works a little more like Secret Santa so everyone is responsible for the present of one person. The present is then a small gift, a surprise, which is hidden in something homemade, instead of simply being wrapped.

It can be as elaborate as you can imagine, or as simple as you can make it. An example is this ski piste (see link) with a present firmly encased in the middle, needing a lot of force to get the present out. Or a disco ball perhaps.

School children are usually assigned to make them for each other in the higher groups of primary school - the more creative the better, and the more difficult it is to get the present out the funnier.

There is often an accompanying rhyme or poem written by the gift givers, joke presents and a game to accompany the gift giving which involves rolling a die. Instructions include things like swapping presents with your neighbour (hence the chance to end up with the joke present that no one wants) or performing a task if you throw a certain number. The games are as creative and as varied as you want to make them!

The essential element of pakjesavond, the thing that holds it together, just like Christmas, is the company you spend the evening with. It is about being together, having fun and sharing each other's company. It's about family and friends, however you celebrate it. Happy birthday St Nicholas!


  1. How interesting - from what you describe it seems a lot more elaborate than in Germany, but now I understand why my husband and I always argue about the size of Nicholas' Day present. He wants it big, I want it smaller :)

  2. This sounds like so much fun! I love the idea of wrapping a present inside a homemade present! And I bet the kids will love the pizzarette - sounds fun :)

  3. I like this is explained. I often find it hard to explain to my non-Dutch friends what the SintNiclas-feast is like.
    Thank you

  4. This was such a great post to read! Pakjesavond sounds like quite a fun time, and you did help me understand differences between St.Nicholas day and Christmas. Love the idea of having to break open something to get to the gift inside :)