Dutch Sinterklaas "Surprises"

These "surprises" are no ordinary presents!

by Monica Maas

Sinterklaas arriving, Monica Maas sketch
Courtesy of Monica Maas

In our family we always celebrate Sinterklaas with much enthusiasm which comes especially from the way we wrap presents. Of course, we give normally wrapped presents, too.

The specially wrapped presents we call: surprises. That word is the same as the English word, but we pronounce it differently and it also means something different!

Some Dutch families make only one surprise for each person, but we like to make as many as we can for everyone. Sinterklaas-evening with us takes hours—

It is also common in Holland to make personal, and often crazy, poems for each other. Some families are very good at writing poems which reveal the person's peculiar behavior or deeds. There is much humor in it!

If you are not so clever, there are books with rhymes, lists of rhyming words, and suggestions for disguising surprises:
Dutch book of rhymes
Dutch book of rhymes
Dutch book of surprises
St Nicholas Center Collection
Here are some examples of surprises we have made for each other:
  • Aletta (19) lives at school in a flat in Amsterdam. She is a little frightened when her roommate is not there and she is alone. So her sister made for her an enormous elephant of large grey plastic garbage bags to protect her.
  • Henk works with Ecomare, the local seal-protection center. Occasionally whales get stranded on the Dutch coast and Henk was worrying that it might happen here on Texel, too. They were talking about what to do if such an enormous animal were to be stuck on our beach. So, my son Maarten and I planned for a surprise. We made five wooden whales and, after dark, put them in the front garden. One of them had a water hose. We had asked a colleague to phone Henk at 9 pm that evening (when most of the presents would have been opened) and he was to say that there was a whale at the beach. . . ! He phoned at that time and said, "I'll be there in 5 minutes to pick you up. We must save a whale!" Henk became nervous and put on his rubber boots and took his flashlight. Then he opened the front door and his dream of whale-rescue collapsed. In the front garden he saw five wooden whales, one splashing water. Then he realized—this was a joke of Sinterklaas. At that moment his colleague arrived just in time to see Henk's face. Of course, he also got a present when we finished laughing—
  • When a friend's daughter was eight-years-old, her mother unrolled a ball of yarn which the daughter had to roll up again by walking out the front door, into the neighbors next door, out their back door, along the back-lane, in the back door, and so on. At the end of the route, she found a small note, "Look under your bed." There she found something she really, really wanted to have.

All year, things can happen which make a good surprise. But most of the best ideas come in the last days. Even in the last hours—

You can imagine there is much Sint-stress during the first days of December when we are desperately trying to think what to make for someone. At the last moment good ideas come up.

More about Sinterklaas in Texel

Monica Maas is an artist who lives on the island of Texel. She illustrates picture books and has delightful cards—some even feature Sinterklaas.

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