In the Netherlands, Christmas celebrations are steeped in tradition, with both secular and scriptural events throughout the holiday season. Stretching from the end of November to Christmas Day, festivities, dinners, and gatherings are abound. And these weeks of festivities culminate during two distinct holidays: Sinterklaas and Christmas. Both are celebrations everyone can enjoy, regardless of if you leave out hay for Sinterklaas's horse or if you can say "Vrolijk kerstfeest!"
Unique Christmas Traditions in the Netherlands
Every culture has holiday traditions that incorporate the spirit of the season with a unique flair that is distinctive to the culture of the people.
In the Netherlands, holiday traditions include Sinterklaas and special celebrations on both Christmas Day and Second Christmas Day, with some rural communities also celebrating the midwinter hoornblaazen.
Sinterklaas Avond, St. Nicholas Eve, is celebrated annually on December 5th, the eve of St. Nicholas's birthday. On this night, Sinterklaas journeys to the homes of every child in the Netherlands and leaves small gifts and treats for them to enjoy.
Sinterklaas is similar in spirit to Santa Claus, but think of them as sharing a family tree rather than as twins. The Dutch consider him to be a different person than Santa Claus, or Kerstman.
Sinterklaas looks more traditional, as he is tall and slender, with 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 5th, all the way on the first Saturday after November 11th. As Sinterklaas is believed to live in Madrid, Spain, 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.
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Sinterklaas is accompanied by his assistant Black Pete, Zwarte Piet, who is dressed in 16th century Spanish garb in reference to Spain's dominance over the Netherlands during that era. Black Pete's face used to be covered with soot while riding a mule, a stark contrast to the more joyous colors of Sinterklaas's red robes and white horse.
It is Black Pete 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.
Children in the Netherlands leave their shoes filled with hay, carrots, and sugar for Sinterklaas's horse, singing a song or two about Sinterklaas. In the morning, the horse treats have been replaced with gifts for the children and other members of the family. Some family dogs even get a little of a Sinterklaas treat or two with sneaky bites.
Christmas Day and Second Christmas Day
December 25th is First Christmas Day, Eerste Kerstdag. It is still a holiday in the Netherlands. But since most of the gift-giving is done around and for Sinterklaas, Christmas day itself is a time for church services and traditional family meals, including special breakfasts and formal dinners that include gourmetten.
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Second Christmas Day on the 26th, known as Tweede Kerstdag, is a day when people will go visit relatives or go to stores to do fun shopping, with many of the biggest stores open on this day. Families might also use the two days to have separate meals on different sides of the family.
People in the rural, eastern areas of the Netherlands (and parts of northern Germany) celebrate different Christmas traditions. In addition to Sinterklaas 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 seem to call to one another with their horns.
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 might be simpler than Western holiday decorations. Themed trees are growing in popularity, too.
Another popular decoration is poinsettias (kerststers), which are often used as centerpieces, accents, and in other holiday décor. In many cities, bridges and other public places are decorated beautifully with lights.
Delicious food is a key element of many holiday celebrations, including Christmas in the Netherlands. Candy wreaths sometimes 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.
It is customary to give surprise presents on St. Nicholas Day, the 6th. Although presents or treats are put in the shoes from November to Sinterklaas Avond, there is also a different gift tradition between people. 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 with clues about who the mysterious gift giver might be. Gifts may also be hidden or disguised for more 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. If you choose to celebrate this universal holiday in a uniquely cultural way, you will be sure to have a very Vrolijk Kersfeest!