In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas’ Eve, 5 December, became the most important occasion for gift-giving during the winter holiday season. The evening is called Sinterklaasavond or Pakjesavond (“gifts evening”, or literally “packages evening”).
On the evening of 5 December, the presents will somehow arrive, or a note will be “found” that explains where in house the presents were hidden by Zwarte Piet who left a burlap sack with them. Sometimes a neighbour will knock on the door (pretending to be a Zwarte Piet) and leave the sack outside for the children to retrieve; this varies per family.
When the presents arrive, the living room is decked out with them, much as on Christmas Day in English-speaking countries. On 6 December, Sinterklaas departs without any ado, and all festivities are over. In Belgium, most children have to wait until the morning of 6 December to receive their gifts, and Sinterklaas is seen as a festivity almost exclusively for children. The shoes are filled with carrots and sugar cubes on the evening of the fifth and often, a bottle of beer for Zwarte Piet and a cup of coffee for Sinterklaas are placed next to them.
Sinterklaas largely replaces Christmas as a gift-giving occasion, usually for as long as the children are living at home. Also, when it is time for children to give up their pacifier, they place it into his or her shoe (“safekeeping by Sinterklaas”) and it is replaced with chocolate the next morning.
The present is often creatively disguised by being packaged in a humorous, unusual or personalised way. This is called a surprise (from the French ). Poems from Sinterklaas usually accompany gifts, bearing a personal message for the receiver. It is usually a humorous poem which often teases the recipient for well-known bad habits or other character deficiencies. When the children reach the age when they know “the big secret of Sinterklaas”, some people will shift to Christmas Eve or Christmas Day for the present giving. Older children in Dutch families where the children are too old to believe in Sinterklaas anymore, also often celebrate Christmas with presents instead of pakjesavond.
Instead of such gifts being brought by Sinterklaas, family members may draw names for an event comparable to Secret Santa.
PS: Still no news of doctor Piet. We will have to wait tonight and see!