Dutch Christmas traditions, songs, and activities

Your ultimate help guide to a jolly Dutch Christmas: ideas explain local Christmas traditions, Christmas songs, winter activities, and all the Dutch Christmas foods to try throughout the holidays within the Netherlands.

A Dutch Christmas is similar to the experience in other western, predominantly-Christian countries: Christmas within the Netherlands is typified by family gatherings, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the eating of proper food and drink and in some – although not all families – the appearance of Father christmas (Kerstman in Dutch) and also the giving of gifts.

Many expats staying with the Dutch Christmas season are thus amazed through the familiarity of Dutch Christmas traditions yet still time relieved, perhaps, of the lack of a few of the more commercial traditions which go hand-in-hand with festivities home.

There are some differences, however, that expats notice when celebrating Dutch Christmas traditions, not least the arrival of another red-suited, white-bearded man known as Sinterklass (Saint Nicholas), who instead is sombre and surrounded by controversial blackface helpers, referred to as Zwarte Piet, which some international our body is pushing for change. But there are many enjoyable Dutch traditions surrounding arriving, and children never complain about getting presents from Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet on 5 December.

If two Santas sound confusing, this informative guide will help you prepare for the Dutch Christmas season and understand Dutch Christmas traditions, from Sinterklaas to Kerstman.

As they say Merry Christmas in Dutch, Vrolijk Kerstfeest!

An early start to Dutch Christmas: Two Santas?

The Dutch Christmas festive season officially begins with the appearance of Sinterklaas and his legion of Zwarte Piet helpers in mid-November. He arrives by boat from Spain to a new Dutch city every year within an event broadcast survive television.

The feast of Saint Nicolas is well known on 5 December and far from being threatened by his cousin in the North Pole, the tradition of Sinterklaas is booming in popularity. As the December celebrations appear and disappear, families, shops and businesses file away their Sinterklaas paraphernalia and immediately dust off the prior year’s Dutch Holiday decorations. Lights, candles, wreaths, poinsettias and trees are strung during Christmas within the Netherlands, hung, tacked, taped and put into every available space.

Department stores eagerly enter into your swing of products during Christmas within the Netherlands, decorating every floor with bows, wreaths, fake presents and large plastic trees, in preparation for the burgeoning shopping crowds. Streets may become very busy prior to the big day, indicating that Christmas in the Netherlands has additionally not been safe from commercialism.

Yet, the fairy lights in trees and lighted decorations from glass windows give a cheery, warm glow around the dark and cold December nights. Yes, the good natured spirit of Christmas within the Netherlands is alive and well.

Will the actual Santa please stand up?

Despite the appearance of Sinterklaas earlier in the month, a second bearded man, also dressed up in red, makes his method to the Netherlands on Christmas Eve. Don’t be confused though, since the second arrival may be the one most expats is going to be familiar with, namely Santa Claus (Kerstman in Dutch).

The arrival of Santa does not necessarily mean that presents will be shared in each and every Dutch household. In fact, Sinterklaas is a lot more popular than the Kerstman. So despite the fact that some 50 % of the Dutch celebrate Christmas in the Netherlands with presents – and is a growing custom – Santa continues to be typically second place in comparison with Sinterklaas.

Dutch Christmas songs

Of all of the Dutch Christmas traditions, music is as much part of Dutch Christmas nearly as good food and a twinkling Christmas tree. You’ll heard Dutch Christmas songs played on radio stations as well as in shopping centres weeks leading up to Christmas day. Foreigners will feel at home hearing many English-language Christmas classic songs, although the Dutch have created a little market that belongs to them Dutch Christmas songs. A little difference you might note? One of top Dutch Christmas songs is all about a defunct rabbit.

Flappie was the development of Dutch comedian Youp van ‘t Hek, and also the song follows the storyline of the young lad looking for a lost rabbit, which tragically happens to be Christmas dinner. Another quirky song to have hit Dutch airwaves was Eenzame Kerst (Lonely Christmas), being the 70s breakthrough hit of Amsterdam singer André Hazes lamenting how lonely Christmas was in jail.

You will also find the more usual Dutch Christmas songs:

  • Sinterklaas, Kapoentje: Saint Nicholas, oh my gosh one
  • Zie Ginds Komt de Stoomboot: Look, here comes the steamboat
  • Sinterklaas, Goed Heilig Man: Saint Nicholas, Good Holy Man
  • Hoor de Wind Waait de Bomen: The wind keeps blowing
  • Hoor Wie Stapt Daar Kinderen: Someone is coming, children
  • Op de hoge, hoge daken: Over high and gloomy roof tops
  • O, kom er eens kijken: O, come have a look

You can find music and English translations here.

Dutch Christmas food

Dutch Christmas food was traditionally covered with ingredients for example spices, white flour, dried fruits, almonds and sugar, all the historically expensive foods which were typically restricted to feast days, parties and special holidays. Today there are still some goodies and cookies which are only eaten during the festive season, including kruidnoten (ginger nuts), advocaat (egg-yolk liquer) and bischopswijn (Dutch mulled wine), although the spiced biscuit speculaas tends to eaten year-round nowadays.

A sweet tooth is unquestionably needed at Christmas time as you’ll see most abundant in common Dutch Christmas food and treats:

  • Appelbeignets – Dutch apple fritters, particularly common around New Year’s.
  • Banketstaaf – dutch pastry filled with a sweet almond paste centre, sometimes in the shape of letters (banketletters).
  • Bischopswijn – Dutch mulled wine and supposedly Sinterklass' favourite.
  • Duivekater – a sweet festive white bread.
  • Jan Hagel cookies – flaky Christmas cookies with cinnamon, almond flakes and candied sugar.
  • Kerstkransjes – Christmas ‘wreath cookies’ which are also used to decorate the Christmas tree.
  • Kerstkrans – a wreath shaped pastry topped with glace fruits and full of almond paste.
  • Kerststol – A fruited Dutch Christmas loaf, sometimes with a sweet almond paste centre.
  • Marzipan
  • Oliebollen – fried balls of batter, what some say may be the Dutch precursor towards the donut.
  • Speculaas – spiced cinnamon-ginger cookies

Uniquely Dutch Christmas traditions: mid-winter horn blowing

While the commercialised, shop-till-you-drop Dutch Christmas cheer may appear familiar to you, there are still some unique differences from a Dutch Christmas and, say, Christmas in the UK or US to become discovered.

For example, a long-time tradition among farmers within the rural east is the ‘mid-winter horn blowing’. This tradition begins on Advent Sunday (the fourth Sunday before Christmas) and continues until Christmas Eve.

Farmers use long horns produced from the wood of elder trees, and everyday at dawn they blow the horn while standing on the well to announce the coming of Christ.

You will dsicover a horn for sale at one of the Dutch Christmas markets across the nation, where it might also be easy to stop some time and watch an old craftsman at the office. Allowing the horn to actually make noise is a trick requiring lots of practice!

The Dutch Christmas family spirit

While meals are an essential ingredient in Christmas in the Netherlands, household is the key additive that makes this holiday traditional.

Research indicates that individuals thought spending time with Dutch family was the most important a part of Christmas within the Netherlands, accompanied by eating good food go to church. In early November families also await the start of the annual Sinterklaasjournal children's program.

Dutch Christmas markets and December traditions

For Christmas markets and December events, read our listing of seasonal events in the Netherlands.

A more recent tradition is to give children a unique calendar (or Advent calendar) helping them count right down to Christmas within the Netherlands. The calendar hides some candy inside a special door, which must be opened each day.

Another custom is to place an Advent wreath in the family room with four red or yellow candles. The first candle is lit on Advent Sunday as well as an additional candle is lit each following Sunday.

Many individuals will also display a nativity scene using their Dutch Holiday decorations. The decorated Christmas tree has become widely popular since its summary of the Netherlands in the 19th century.

Two days of Dutch Christmas

Christmas in the Netherlands is well known over 2 days: 25 and 26 December, referred to as First and Second Xmas day. To a lot of expats, perhaps an unusual custom because elsewhere some spend 26 December raiding local malls hunting Boxing Day bargains or those Down Under might watch the beginning of the Boxing Day cricket Test or horse races. Anyone for any Boxing Day fox hunt?

Instead, Christmas within the Netherlands means both of these days are spent with family, singing carols, playing games, watching movies, reading Christmas tales and indulging in holiday feasts. The Dutch family is notably important and this is especially highlighted over the Dutch Christmas period.

Suprisingly, a survey by research bureau Intomart (2003) found that about one third of Dutch residents didn't know what bible story the Christian celebration took it's origin from. Among the religious population, not every Christians knew this is of Christmas either. Of Dutch Reformed churchgoers, 23 percent first got it wrong, compared with 16 percent of Dutch Presbyterians and 26 % of Roman Catholics.

This isn't to point out the Netherlands does not observe the birth of Christ with religious fervor. In fact, many Dutch residents will attend church on Christmas Eve night, but research also suggests that family get-togethers get higher priority.

Preparing a Dutch Christmas feast

Part of the items makes a ‘traditional’ Dutch Christmas may be the special Dutch Christmas food consumed at the moment of year.

Although there are no candy canes, there are plenty of other goodies, for example oliebollen (a kind of an oily doughnut), Christmas stollen (round bread with currents and raisins), almond pastry rings, enough marzipan to last until next Christmas and chocolate ‘Christmas rings’.

Dutch Christmas dinners usually consist of venison, goose, hare, or turkey with lots of vegetables and Kerstbrood (Christmas bread). The Dutch also celebrate when you eat gourmetten, a hot plate on which diners place a set of mini pans containing their selection of meat or vegetables. As well as for dessert, there's usually some sort of pudding, accompanied by a mug of warm hot cocoa with whipped cream.

Eating out at Christmas did become extremely popular in past years, but tougher economic circumstances meant the mid-range to reduce spectrum from the restaurant industry reported a stop by Christmas custom. If you're planning to eat out, remember it is always wise – just to be on the safe side – to create reservations far ahead of time.

The spirit of Dutch Christmas?

If you may well ask, many Dutch nationals will stress for you the superficiality of gift-giving at Christmas within the Netherlands. But there are also families who exchange gifts at Sinterklaas‘ birthday and also at Christmas – this will depend on where you live.

New Year’s Eve within the Netherlands

Let’s not forget the end-of-year bash, New Year’s Eve (Oud en Nieuw) in the Netherlands, when crowds, especially younger generations, go to the central squares of the larger cities. In Amsterdam, for example, the night begins with an explosive round of fireworks throughout the city around 11pm at main squares such as Dam Square, Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein, that are filled with festivities. You can check the website of the local municipality for any listing of events.

Read concerning the top Dutch festivals for additional events within the Netherlands.

Photo Credits: Hans Splinter (Sinterklaas), CMFRIESE (Christmas market), Cristiano Betta (Gourmetten) and Eelco Cramer (New Year’s). / Published 2011; updated 2020.

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