The Sinterklaas Surprise: A Cautionary Tale

November 26, 2013 By Ashleigh Whitaker Comments

One mama shares her Sinterklaas Surprise trauma so that others can avoid the same fate. Read on for tips on surviving Sinterklaas Kijkavond....

If you live in the Netherlands, you would know that Sinterklaas (Sint Nicholas, from where Santa Claus or Father Christmas derives...loosely speaking), and his horse, Amerigo, arrives from Spain in mid-November, to an awful lot of hullaballoo and expectation. Children place their shoe every evening and sing songs, hoping for a gift or sweet in their shoe, and many newly arrived parents can be heard singing ‘Sinterklaas kapoentje’ while secretly wondering what on earth a kapoentje is…

The kids start eating pepernoten and schuimpjes off the floor. They want to visit their local Albert Heijn to leave their shoes there, so you end up hoarding outgrown shoes over the year so that your little angel can put them in all available supermarkets and at school on various evenings between the middle of November and the 5th December. Your mealtimes revolve around Sinterklaasjournaal, and you are constantly scrabbling for inexpensive shoe gifts.


What the Sinterklaas Surprise Tradition Consists of (in Theory)

At a certain age, and once Sinterklaas becomes more of an abstract notion than absolute certainty, Dutch families exchange "surprises" on Sinterklaasavond. These are usually a small gift, inventively wrapped to represent something that the person enjoys, with a poem written about the person attached to the gift. The name of the recipient is not marked on the gift as you are meant to guess for whom the gift is intended from the poem, combined with the clues in the way it’s wrapped. Which is all very well, but nobody tells you that this also applies at school…

For us, the lower years of primary school were a piece of cake and we went along with the celebrations, setting out shoes and eating pepernoten with the best of them. However, in 2008 when my son was in group 5, I started working full time after transitioning from being a stay at home mother, and Sinterklaas occurred, as usual, on the 5th of December. I mention this confluence of events because I rather naively expected it to be the same as previous years, but no, the challenge of the surprise was lurking in my future and I had absolutely no idea!

At our school just before the 30th November families of children in group 5 and above will receive a note which reads (translated from this year’s letter) something like this:

‘Every child draws a ticket with the name of another child. The ticket includes a wish list and tips regarding a hobby or sport that the child enjoys. It is the intention that a present for the child is bought to the value of 5 euros. The present must be wrapped as a ‘surprise’ (for example a car or horse or whatever the child likes). It is also the intention that your child creates a rhyme or verse, perhaps with your help. The rhyme is attached to the surprise and the name of the child is written underneath the surprise. The surprise must be packed in a large black bag and delivered on the morning of 4 December.’

You would assume from such a letter that the quality of the surprise should reflect that it’s a child-manufactured item with a poem that has been written with the help of a parent, no? Absolutely not!

How it Works (in Reality)

The first year that my oldest son had to make a surprise is not a stellar moment in our family history.

I received the letter and, assuming that it meant what it said, told my son to let me know what he needed to make his surprise. He told me he wanted to make a horse using recycled materials as the little girl who was his recipient liked horses. He outlined his idea – something to do with toilet rolls and wool – and it sounded fine to me.

I didn't pick him up from school anymore and couldn’t ask the opinion of the other parents, so I just nodded and went along with his idea.

I also didn’t have daily contact with the teachers.

Added to a 50-hour working week, is it a big surprise that surprise-making wasn’t high on my list of priorities? 

Then I got called at work on the morning of 4 December and was asked to come into the school to meet with the teacher at 3.30 when school ended.

I went in, expecting to hear something about school work and instead was faced by an irate teacher shaking the surprise at me and asking me if I thought it was of the required standard. I took a deep breath and asked what all the fuss was about, whereupon she informed me that she had made a replacement surprise for the child in question as clearly I hadn’t felt that it was important enough to put in the requisite amount of effort. The words ‘sneu’ and ‘triest’ were bandied about (disappointing and sad respectively), at which she tore up my son’s surprise (which was created in a style and fashion commensurate with the talents of an 8-year-old) and threw it in the bin, whilst exclaiming all the time about how pathetic it was! Still baffled, and with that sick lump in the guts feeling that all parents know very well – the one where you have failed in some way and yet you’re not quite sure which way – I went home. I asked my son what it was all about and all he said was that the other surprises were much better than his and he couldn’t understand how the other kids were so good at crafts compared to him.

It was only that evening at the Sinterklaas Kijkavond, where the parents are invited to look at all the surprises when I suddenly became aware of the fact that surprise making is a competitive sport here!

Over the years I’ve seen:

  • a life-size robot with red glowing eyes that lit up when you pressed his hand
  • a Playstation controller the same size as my coffee table
  • a horse made of paper mâché
  • footballs, football fields
  • music notes, mini pianos, guitars, violins
  • iPods, iPads, Nintendo DSs, Marios
  • giant sweetie bags, giant paper mâché hockey sticks, giant Pokemon cards
  • paper mâché dogs, cats and hamsters

We have made:

  • an Ajax football from two Styrofoam halves with the present inside
  • a music note from cardboard
  • an Ajax football shirt
  • and, most recently, an iPod

Tips and Recommendations                                                                            

So, how do you avoid our family’s experiences? There are some tips to remember:

  1. It is absolutely not the intention that your child will make the surprise alone, even though it implies such in the letter!
  2. Hardly anybody sticks to the 5 euro rule and it’s best to spend a bit more on the gift, but not too much. Sometimes, whichever way you go will be wrong!
  3. Suitable gifts for inside the surprise are fancy pencils, fancy pens, kneedgum (a sort of kneadable eraser), bouncy balls, a chocolate letter, earrings, pepernoten, slime, etc. All available from the Blokker, Bart Smit or the newsagent.
  4. Save all Styrofoam packaging, cardboard tubes etc. Have glue, tape, paints on hand. Aluminium foil is your friend if you need to make something silver, as aluminium foil is very forgiving to work with.
  5. Unleash your inner creative soul but don’t think too big the first time around!
  6. Let your child do some of it, and don’t leave it until 3 December to get it finished.
  7. If you are not very creative, then find a generic surprise that you can make easily, like an iPod replica, and stick to that every year rather than stressing.
  8. Write the name of the recipient on the bottom of the surprise where no one can see it, and wrap the surprise in a black bag to be sent to school. The name of the recipient should not be visible at all – the intention is to guess!
  9. The poem should be short and sweet and mention the activities that the child likes. There are various poem generators online if you run out of inspiration.
  10. Finally, don’t expect to be able to bike home with any ease on the 5th December if your child has received a life-size surprise!

The frenzy surrounding Sinterklaas is huge and, as a foreigner enrolling a child in a Dutch school, the expectation attached to parental involvement can come as a huge surprise. Hopefully, this article will help other parents to avoid the same Sinterklaas pitfalls I encountered.

Ed note: This is the experience from a specific primary school and may not apply to all. Please check in with your own school to find out more about their approach to this tradition.


Photo credit: Gift in hand by Markus Spiske on Unsplash  & crafts table photo by Kristina Evstifeeva on Unsplash

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