A big part of the SinterKlaas tradition involves poems. These accompany the presents and are usually slightly teasing in nature. The presentation of the gift is also important. After Sint or Piet knocks on the door to leave the sack of presents, it is taken inside and opened, usually by the host or hostess. Then presents are handed round and everyone admires the wrapped gift and often makes an attempt to guess what is in it. Then in a specified order, either older to youngest or vice versa, everyone reads the poem that he has received aloud before opening the present. For the younger children these are simple and are usually admonishments to do better at school or not fight with their siblings or pick up their rooms better. It is amazing how SinterKlaas just seems to know about their naughty behaviour! But of course he also knows about their heart's desire and sometimes includes special presents that may not have even been on their wishlists! The adults and older children also get gifts. Sometimes these are exchanged with one another, sometimes they also come from Sint. But in any case there will be a poem, and it is likely to have some hidden or even obvious meaning, often related to the present itself.
As much work goes into the writing of these poems and the jokes and comments that accompany the presents than goes into the presents themselves. In fact, often the presents are not really very big or expensive. But the appreciation of it goes into the effort that was put into its presentation. This is the true nature of the holiday. And at school the children are trained early in this understanding. From 3rd grade on in most dutch schools, the children draw names of someone in their class and are charged with getting a "surprise" present, to cost not more than around $5.00. But they are asked to keep the identity of the person they are making the present for a secret. And more important, they are asked to wrap the present up in a special way. Sometimes it is wrapped to represent the recipient's favorite hobby, for instance a microphone for someone who likes to sing, sometimes it looks like a toy (this year we saw a hockey stick and several Lego bricks), or maybe it looks like something to do with the holiday (a candy or a shoe).
DD2 made her Surprise this year into a replica of Sint's steamboot, complete with a funnel with cotton wool steam coming out and little flags. I should have taken a picture, but forgot. The teacher promised to do it next week before they open the presents, and I'll try and include it then. DD1 is still in the process of wrapping her Surprise present. She is giving a book on secret codes, and is putting it in a "safe" complete with a combination lock. But that is not all. Older children (5th grade and above) are required to make up poems to go with their presents. DD1's includes a riddle with the answer giving the combination to the safe. Other poems may be in the form of limericks. And in Dutch language classes, the poems themselves are required to be in Dutch! This sounds like a lot of work. And it is!! Therefore many large department stores have in-house poetry writers to help their customers come up with suitable rhymes to go with the presents they have purchased in-store. And there are books and guides and even computer programs to help with generating the poems. And of course websites!! Don't believe me? See for yourself: here, or here, or here, or here, or...
The point I want to make is that this holiday is not just fun, but it something very special and treasured by the Dutch and others in neighboring countries that share in this celebration. The SinterKlass holiday represents the best qualities of caring for one another and spending not just money but time and thought in selecting a gift. The real difference in this holiday from many other celebrations, at least one that many families try and uphold, is that it is not about the materialism that seems to be taking over our societies these days. But it is about the thought and energy we put into it ourselves. I have been complimented in comments on my blog about my efforts in making this holiday special for my kids. Really it is very little as compared to what other Dutch moms do. My rhymes are clumsy and our celebrations have not been very fancy as we continue to make Christmas our big holiday. Nonetheless, I felt and still feel it is important that my kids understand the culture they are growing up in, and so I have tried to capture some of the spirit of this holiday.
When I hear DD1 wistfully longing for another visit from Sint, joined by DD2 who then goes on to say "Remember when..." I know that I have had some success in this endeavor!