Sinterklaas Poems: Culture, Form, and Creative Guide
On 28 November, the Board is organising a book swap activity. Participants are asked to bring a (wrapped) book they want to gift along with a poem. This blog post aims to explain the idea behind the poems and what will be done with them, as well as provide some tips for writing your own.
This guide is based on the author’s experiences in their own family and tailored to Flanor’s Sinterklaas Book Swap activity. A quick search of “sinterklaas poem” in your search engine of choice will provide a number of more general and more complete explanations of this Dutch tradition.
The Sinterklaas tradition
All of the traditions, customs, and symbols associated with the Dutch festival of Sint Nicolaas (Saint Nicholas), more commonly known as Sinterklaas, are of course well beyond the scope of this post. Instead, I will focus on the gift-giving day that concludes the Sinterklaas festivities on or around 5 December.
Generally, the people celebrating together will draw lots to determine who gives a present to whom. This happens well in advance, not just to give everyone time to find presents but also to craft decorations called a “surprise” around the gift. At the Flanor activity, the drawing of lots will be simulated with the dice game while the surprises will be skipped.
In addition to the often quite elaborate surprise, each gift is accompanied by a poem, which is read out loud by the person who gets the gift. The Sinterklaas poem is perhaps described more by its association with the occasion than with a specific poetic form. Nevertheless, one can identify a number of elements that commonly occur in Sinterklaas poems.
In terms of content, a Sinterklaas poem almost universally addresses or describes the recipient. Often the poem will narrate how Sinterklaas ponders what to give the recipient. The quintessential (and most clichéd) opening for a Sinterklaas poem goes as follows:
Sinterklaas zat weer te denken
Wat hij [naam] zou schenken
Sinterklaas was thinking once again
What to give [name] (and then...)
Then the poem proceeds to describe characteristics of the recipient (often while poking good-natured fun at them) while sometimes giving hints about the present. For example, a poem accompanying a watch or alarm clock might mention the recipient’s habit of being late and state that Sinterklaas has found a solution. Did I mention it’s good-natured? Yeah, sometimes it’s not so much fun.
Form and style
The form of a Sinterklaas poem comes a distant third after the occasion and the content. Poetry is not very present in Dutch everyday culture, so in order for the composition of Sinterklaas poems to be accessible – in families who celebrate, everyone is expected to write them – they have to be stylistically undemanding. This is great news for us!
Nevertheless, there are a few common formal elements. First, Sinterklaas poems almost universally rhyme, with an AABBCCDD(etc) schema. Metre is entirely optional. The poems are generally at least ten lines long, not divided into verses, but short enough to be comfortably read out loud at a party where the guest list includes small children impatiently awaiting their turn to open their presents. So no Kalevala 2: Electric Boogaloo, please.
Write your own
We now have our three defining aspects of Sinterklaas poems: context, content, and style. The first one is easy, since any poem you bring to the Sinterklaas Book Game will pretty much by definition be a Sinterklaas poem already.
Next, we look at the content. In Flanor’s case, we don’t know beforehand who our books will go to, so your best bet is to say something about the book itself. For inspiration, you could think of these “mystery” books you sometimes see about on Tumblr that are wrapped in brown paper with a few keywords written on them. Maybe you can explain why the book is worth reading – imagine you are pitching it to a reading group in poetic form. (Maybe you could do that for real next time your group is choosing its next read, it might give your favourite an advantage over the other options? Just a thought.) You don’t have to write about the book though, you can write an ode to Flanor or get creative with your subject matter.
And as for the poetic form, I’d say you can go hogwild. You can go traditionalist by caring about the rhyme and nothing else, but I doubt that anyone will mind if you write a sonnet or an alexandrine or something. There are plenty of rhyme dictionaries available on the internet. My own best friend is Wiktionary – it’s an amazing all-round dictionary project, and for most English words, you can scroll down to the Pronunciation section and click the link after the Rhyme bullet point.
I hope this helps you in your poetic endeavours. Most importantly, though, you are not obligated to follow any of this advice! Rules are meant to be broken, especially in poetry. As always, any questions about the activity can be addressed to the Board.
See you at the Flanor Sinterklaas activity!