Christmas in the Netherlands

Christmas in the Netherlands

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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.

 

 

Expatica

Photo Credits: Hans Splinter (Sinterklaas), CMFRIESE (Christmas market), Cristiano Betta (Gourmetten) and Eelco Cramer (New Year's). / Published 2011; updated 2016.

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6 Comments To This Article

  • Netherland posted:

    on 31st December 2015, 13:16:36 - Reply

    amazing pictures of Netherlands and I will come next month here to visit.

  • Yamovitch posted:

    on 28th May 2013, 16:31:26 - Reply

    I have one thing to say: "David Sedaris - Six to Eight Black Men."
  • Christine Jones posted:

    on 16th December 2011, 14:35:39 - Reply

    We are spending Christmas with Dutch friends this Christmas and because we brits are bringing presents for our kids, they've held back a proportion of the sinterklaas presents for Christmas to prevent sulking as she watches our boys open presents. Shows much more emphasis is on Sinterklass for presents and Kerst there is more like UK Easter Sunday, in that it's mainly food and family during Christmas. Having seen my younger sisters grow up in Holland with Sinterklass, I think people with kids centre the presents for the 5th of Dec. Judging by the madness very much like the UK with Christmas shopping, people do give Christmas presents but they are more adult orientated families with less kids involved or grown up kids. The shops seem to be rammed with gift toiletries like in the UK. The best thing to do with these if you get them is donate them to your local Women's Refuge in January!
  • Albert Kuyerhuis posted:

    on 15th December 2011, 01:40:26 - Reply

    "Mid-winter horn blowing" heralding the birth of Christ? How so? Is it not rooted in a pre-Christian era?
    Christmas is not as commercialized because the Dutch have held longer on to it as a strictly Christian event with many people attending church services. Neighbours in the Netherlands who otherwise did not, traditionally went to church on Christmas, Easter, baptisms, weddings and funerals.
    Visitors to the Netherlands should attend church services in those majestic and monumental buildings when the orthodox Reformed meet there. Foreigners will be amazed at the organ accompanyment and the Psalm singing. That too is Dutch.
  • Simson posted:

    on 14th December 2011, 18:56:27 - Reply

    Re: "A more recent tradition sees children given a special calendar helping them countdown to Christmas. The calendar hides some candy in a special "door", which must be opened each day."
    Not really. The first known Advent Calendar was hand made in 1851. First printed in Hamburg in 1902 it soon spread all over Germany end neighbouring countries, being mentioned in Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks" as early as 1904. Before WW2 it had become a tradition in the Netherlands and Flanders. Its apogee may have been in the fifties and sixties, after which it fell into a decline.
    Our decade has seen a small revival of the tradition. However, it is certainly not a recent phenomenon.
  • Daniel posted:

    on 14th December 2011, 14:03:51 - Reply

    This is all quite accurate, mirrors our experience last year and goes to show that Christmas in Netherlands is pretty much exactly the same as in the UK. Most people spend both 25