Christmas in the Netherlands
For those spending their first Christmas in the Netherlands, or even for more seasoned expats, here is our guide to celebrating the festive season, Dutch–style.
Christmas in the Netherlands is similar to the experience in other western, predominantly-Christian countries. It is typified by family gatherings, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the eating of fine food and drink and in some – but not all families – the giving of gifts.
Many expats staying here through the Dutch festive season will be pleasantly surprised by the familiarity of the Dutch Christmas and relieved, perhaps, by the absence of some of the more commercial traditions that go hand-in-hand with festivities back home. Here's a guide to preparing a Dutch Christmas.
Early start to the Dutch festive season: Who's with Santa?
The Dutch festive season officially starts with the arrival of Sinterklaas and his legion of Zwarte Piet helpers in mid-November. He arrives by boat from Spain to a different Dutch city every year in an event broadcast live on television.
The feast of Saint Nicolas is celebrated on 5 December and far from being threatened by his cousin from the North Pole, the tradition of Sinterklaas is rising in popularity. As the December celebrations come and go, families, shops and businesses file away their Sinterklaas paraphernalia and immediately dust off last year's Christmas decorations. Lights, candles, wreaths, poinsettias and trees are strung, hung, tacked, taped and placed in every available space.
Department stores eagerly get into the swing of things, decorating every floor with bows, wreaths, fake presents and large plastic trees, in preparation for the burgeoning shopping crowds. Streets can become very busy leading up to the big day, indicating that the Netherlands is not immune to the commercialism of Christmas.
Yet, fairy lights in trees, and lighted decorations from house windows give a cheery, warm glow on the dark and cold December nights. Yes, the good natured spirit of Christmas is alive and well.
Will the real Santa please stand up?
Despite the arrival of Sinterklaas earlier in the month, a second bearded man, also dressed in red, makes his way to the Netherlands on Christmas Eve. Don't be confused though, because the second arrival is the one most expats will be accustomed to, namely Santa Claus (Kerstman in Dutch).
The arrival of Santa does not necessarily mean that presents will be shared in every Dutch household. In fact, Sinterklaas is much more popular than the Kerstman. So despite the fact that 50 percent of the Dutch celebrate Christmas with presents – a growing custom – Santa is always second place in comparison with Sinterklaas.
Mid-winter horn blowing
While the commercialised, shop-till-you-drop sort of festive cheer might sound familiar to you, there are a few other differences between a Dutch Christmas and say, Christmas in the UK or US.
For example, a long-time tradition among farmers in the rural east is the 'mid-winter horn blowing'. This custom begins on Advent Sunday (the fourth Sunday before Christmas) and continues until Christmas Eve.
Farmers use long horns made from the wood of elder trees, and everyday at dawn they blow the horn while standing over a well to announce the coming of Christ.
You might find a horn for sale at one of the Christmas markets across the country, where it might also be possible to stop a while and watch an old craftsman at work. Creating the horn to actually make noise is a trick requiring plenty of practice!
The Dutch family spirit
While food is an essential ingredient in the Dutch Christmas, family is the secret additive that makes this holiday traditional.
Research has shown that people thought spending time with family was the most important part of Christmas, followed by eating good food and attending church.
Christmas markets and December events
For Christmas markets and December events, read our Seasonal events special.
A more recent tradition is to give children a special calendar helping them count down to Christmas. The calendar hides some candy in a special 'door', which must be opened each day.
Another custom is to place an advent wreath in the living room with four red or yellow candles. The first candle is lit on Advent Sunday and an additional candle is lit each following Sunday.
Many people will also display a nativity scene with their Christmas decorations. The decorated Christmas tree has become widely popular after been introduced to the Netherlands in the 19th century.
Two days of Christmas
The Dutch celebrate Christmas over two days: 25 and 26 December, described as First and Second Christmas Day. To many expats, this is perhaps a strange custom because elsewhere some spend 26 December raiding local malls hunting Boxing Day bargains or those Down Under might watch the start of the Boxing Day cricket Test. Anyone for a Boxing Day fox hunt?
In the Netherlands, these two days are spent with family, singing carols, playing games, watching movies, reading Christmas tales and indulging in holiday feasts. Family is notably important to the Dutch and this is highlighted over the Christmas period.
Suprisingly, a survey by research bureau Intomart in December 2003 indicated that about one third of Dutch residents do not know what bible story the Christian celebration is based on.
Among the religious population, not all Christians knew the meaning of Christmas either. Of Dutch Reformed churchgoers, 23 percent got it wrong, compared with 16 percent of Dutch Presbyterians and 26 percent of Roman Catholics.
This is not to suggest the Netherlands does not observe the birth of Christ with religious fervour. In fact, many Dutch residents will attend church on Christmas Eve night, but research also indicates that family get-togethers get higher priority.
Preparing a Dutch Christmas feast
Part of what makes a 'traditional' Dutch Christmas is the food consumed at this time of year.
Although there are no candy canes, there are plenty of other goodies, such as oliebollen (a kind of an oily dough nut), Christmas stollen (round bread with currents and raisins), almond pastry rings, enough marzipan to last until next Christmas and chocolate 'Christmas rings'.
Christmas dinners usually consist of venison, goose, hare or turkey with plenty of vegetables and Kerstbrood (Christmas bread). The Dutch also celebrate by eating gourmetten, a hot plate on which diners place a set of mini pans containing their choice of meat or vegetables. And for dessert, there is usually some sort of pudding, followed by a cup of warm hot chocolate with whipped cream.
Eating out at Christmas did become an extremely popular in past years, but tougher economic circumstances meant the mid-range to lower spectrum of the restaurant industry reported a drop in Christmas custom. If you are planning to eat out, remember it is always wise – just to be on the safe side – to make reservations far in advance.
Religious services in English in the Netherlands
For those of you seeking a church service in English, or a midnight Christmas mass with carols, use our guide to relgious services in English in the Netherlands.
The spirit of Dutch Christmas
If you ask them, many Dutch nationals will stress to you the superficiality of Christmas gift-giving. But there are also families who exchange gifts at Sinterklaas' birthday and at Christmas – it depends on where you live.
New Year's Eve in the Netherlands
Let's not forget the end-of-year bash, New Year's Eve (Oud en Nieuw), when the crowds, especially the younger generation, head for the central squares of the larger cities. In Amsterdam, for instance, the night begins with an explosive round of fireworks throughout the city around 11pm at main squares such as Dam Square, Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein, which are full of festivities.
Read our article Celebrating New Year's Eve in the Netherlands and find out where to party on New Year's Eve and other alternatives to a wild night out.
ExpaticaPhoto Credits: Hans Splinter (Sinterklaas), CMFRIESE (Christmas market), Cristiano Betta (Gourmetten) and Eelco Cramer (New Year's). / Published 2011; updated 2016.
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