Christmas traditions in the Netherlands are a unique and meaningful celebration of both the secular and spiritual aspects of the Christmas holiday. Weeks of festivities culminate during two distinct holidays within the season, and both are celebrations that everyone can enjoy.
About the Netherlands
The Netherlands, also known as Holland, is a western European nation that borders Germany and Belgium. It is a densely populated nation with a rich history, often symbolized by its popular windmills, tulips, and wooden shoes.
Unique Christmas Traditions in the Netherlands
Every culture has unique holiday traditions that incorporate the spirit of the season with the unique flair that is distinctive to one people. In the Netherlands, holiday traditions include Sinterklaas Avond, the midwinter hoornblaazen, and special celebrations on Christmas Day.
Sinterklaas Avond - St. Nicholas Eve - is celebrated annually on December 5 and is considered the eve of Santa Claus's birthday. On this eve, Sinterklaas journeys to the homes of every child in the Netherlands and leaves small gifts and treats for them to enjoy. Sinterklaas is the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus, but he looks quite different from the jolly man depicted in western culture. Sinterklaas is tall and slender, and he wears dark red robes and a hat similar to a bishop's attire. In many traditional images, he is elderly and has a long white beard.
Sinterklaas Avond celebrations actually begin several weeks before December 5, often as early as mid-November. Sinterklass is believed to live in Spain, and he arrives with great fanfare on a steamship at the start of the holiday season. Amsterdam and other port cities generally hold great celebrations to herald his arrival, including parades, ringing church bells, and children's parties.
Sinterklaas is accompanied by his assistant Black Peter (Zwarte Piet), who is dressed in 16th century Spanish attire to symbolize Spain's dominance over the Netherlands during that era. But Black Peter's face is covered with soot and he rides a mule, a stark contrast to the more joyous colors of Sinterklaas's red robes and white horse. It is Black Peter who goes down each home's chimney to leave gifts for the children, though in some legends he is also said to punish disobedient children.
Just as children in western cultures leave cookies for Santa Claus and may leave a treat for his reindeer, children in the Netherlands leave their shoes filled with hay, carrots, and sugar for Sinterklaas's horse. In the morning, the horse treats have been replaced with gifts for the children.
Rural eastern areas of the country celebrate different Christmas traditions in the Netherlands. In addition to Sinterklaas Avond celebrations, this area is well known for the midwinter hoornblazen, or midwinter horn blowing. Handmade horns - three- or four-foot horns carved from birch or elder saplings - are blown over wells to announce Advent and herald the birth of Christ. The low tone produced from these horns resonating over the wells can be heard for several miles, and it is not unusual for several farms to seemingly call to one another with their horns. In some areas these horns may be blown each day of Advent, or they may be reserved for the first or last days of the spiritual celebration.
December 25 is still a holiday in the Netherlands, but since most gift-giving is done on Sinterklaas Avond, this later part of the holiday season is generally more spiritual and involves more church services, concerts, and recitals showcasing religious material. This day is a time for family gatherings and delicious meals, including special breakfasts and formal dinners.
More Netherlands Traditions
Christmas traditions in the Netherlands also include beautiful holiday decorations, special seasonal treats, and gifts shared between family members and friends.
Christmas decorations in the Netherlands include rustic Christmas décor such as pine and holly boughs, simple lights, and candles. Many homes do have Christmas trees, and they may be decorated with all types of lights and ornaments or they may be simpler than western holiday decorations. Themed trees are especially popular. Another popular decoration is poinsettias (kerststers), which are often used as centerpieces, accents, and other holiday décor.
Delicious food is a key element of many holiday celebrations, including Christmas in the Netherlands. Candy wreaths often decorate trees and small treats may be given with gifts. Lavish dinners on Sinterklaas Avond typically include venison or roast goose, roast pork, vegetables, and homemade breads. Boiled chestnuts, fruit, an almond paste bread (kerststol) similar to marzipan, and cookies are also popular. Many families bake letter cakes shaped like the first letter of each family member's name to add a personal and tasty dish to the holiday fare. Currant buns and rich breads with fruit and nuts (stollen) are also popular.
Most gifts in the Netherlands are exchanged on Sinterklaas Avond or the following day, when many family gatherings are held. Gifts may include whimsical poems, and it is not unusual for strange packages or riddles to be included to make each gift unique and exciting. Gifts may also be hidden or disguised for even more enjoyment and merriment.
Celebrating Dutch Christmas Traditions
It is easy to celebrate holiday traditions from the Netherlands, and many families - both with Dutch ancestry in other countries and those who live in the Netherlands - have created personal blends of traditional celebrations and modern holidays.
Some families, for example, split gift giving between Sinterklaas Avond and December 25, and different sides of the family may host similar meals on each day for everyone to share. However you choose to celebrate this universal holiday in a uniquely cultural way, you will be sure to have a very Vrolijk Kersfeest!