Christmas, the traditional Christian holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, is celebrated over two days in the Netherlands, i.e., Eerste Kerstdag (First Christmas Day) on December 25 and Tweede Kerstdag (Second Christmas Day) on December 26, both of which are public holidays.
While it may seem similar to what you know, Christmas is not about Santa Claus and reindeer in the Netherlands. The Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas Day, the tradition that may have seeded the idea for Santa Claus in the first place) on December 5, and it is this day that Dutch children get excited about. They also receive most of their presents on Sinterklaas.
This means that Christmas in the Netherlands is really about the ambiance. People buy Christmas trees, and decorate them with kerstkransjes (Christmas wreath cookies), glass balls, gilded nuts, ribbons, glittery pine cones, frosted bells, and red and white candles. Many people place beautiful Advent star lights in their windows.
The main square of every city has its own brightly lit Christmas tree. Twinkly lights shaped like bells and stars and garlands are strung over many of the charming old streets, adding instant Christmas cheer during the darkest days of the year. Department stores are beautifully decked out in red, white, green, silver and gold decorations. Christmas carillon music is played, and you will find many old-fashioned stalls selling donuts and other fried seasonal favorites like oliebollen and appelflappen on the street. Flower sellers offer beautifully made wreaths, red and white poinsettias, holly, mistletoe, and decorated pine cones.
Christmas is family time, although the hyper-hysteric commercial style of Christmas that is found in so many other Christian countries is gaining ground here too, unfortunately. Rather confusingly, Santa Claus (called de Kerstman) is also trying to edge his way into Dutch Christmas. Of course, kids are only too happy to accept two gift-giving Santas if it means more presents for them.
Families spend the day together on the 25th. Some attend a late-night Christmas service at church, after which they eat breakfast at home, often in the early hours. In an increasingly irreligious Holland, however, most people relax at home and eat themselves silly. Breakfast usually consists of a brunch with a kerststol (fruited Christmas loaf) with butter, and luxury breakfast items like fancy bread rolls, smoked salmon, pates, etc.
Many families eat course after lavish course for their Christmas dinner. These meals could include game meats, roast pork, fondues or gourmetten (a style of eating that involves a grill on the table so that everyone can cook bite-sized pieces of meat and vegetables themselves). Of all traditions, gourmetten is the most typically Dutch Christmas meal, but requires special equipment, called a 'gourmet set.' This is similar to a raclette grill or party grill, which would probably be easier to locate if you're abroad. Turkey is not usually part of the feast in Holland, although it too is gaining ground. Second Christmas Day is often spent visiting family or, weather permitting, going ice skating or on an outing. Leftovers are enjoyed on this day.
Typical Dutch Christmas Treats Include
- (Christmas wreath cookies)
- Kerststol (fruited Christmas loaf)
- Kerstkrans (a wreath shaped pastry decorated with glace fruits and filled with sweet almond paste)
- Banketstaaf or banketletters (pastry logs or letters filled with sweet almond paste)
- Jan Hagel cookies (a fragrant and flaky Christmas cookie)
- Speculaas (spiced cookies)
- Duivekater (a festive sweet bread)
Merry Christmas, or as the Dutch say, Vrolijk Kerstfeest!