25 Surprising Facts about Christmas in the Netherlands

Because it’s fascinating to see how a holiday as universal as Christmas is celebrated differently around the globe, here are 25 surprising facts about Christmas in the Netherlands…

When I moved back to the US after living in the Netherlands for nearly four years, my American friends were often confused about the European nation about half the size of Maine, so here is a quick overview:

  • The Netherlands has a long, North Sea coastline and shares an eastern border with Germany and a southern border with Belgium.
  • The country is often called Holland after two of its more populated provinces, which is sort of like calling the United States either New York or California.
  • It is famous for tulips, windmills, wooden shoes, Heineken beer, and Gouda cheese.
  • The people of the Netherlands are Dutch (not to be confused with the Danish who are from Denmark).

 

25 Surprising Facts about Christmas in the Netherlands | Everyday Wanderer

25 Surprising Facts about Christmas in the Netherlands

1 – While most Europeans begin celebrating Christmas on December 1st, the Dutch begin the first Saturday after November 11th when Sinterklaas arrives on a boat from Spain. This year, Sinterklaas arrived in the Netherlands on November 18th. 

Sinterklaas arrives from Spain on a boat called Pakjesboot.
Instead of a sleigh from the North Pole, Sinterklaas arrives on a boat from Spain called Pakjesboot.

2 – Sinterklaas, also known as St. Nicholas, is the patron saint of children and sailors. He’s also the patron saint of prostitutes, an interesting wrinkle in a nation where prostitution has been legal for several decades.  The connection between St. Nicholas and prostitutes is why chocolate coins are a common treat for children from Sinterklaas.  See fact #6 for more about the chocolate coins…

Sinterklaas and Piet in the Netherlands at Christmas
Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands at the beginning of the holiday season

3 – While Sinterklaas and Santa Claus share white hair and a long beard, Sinterklaas dresses like a Catholic bishop in long, red robes, and mitre hat.

4 – Instead of a sleigh pulled by reindeer, Sinterklaas rides a white horse named Amerigo.

5 – Rather than elves, Sinterklaas has helpers called Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). They dress in 16th-century clothes featuring a large, ruffled collar.

Read my related guest post published at Diapers on a Plane here:  Christmas in the Netherlands.

6 – Zwarte Piet carries a bag filled with goodies, usually chocolate coins and mandarin oranges. The sack of gifts, in particular the gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins, are symbolic of the assistance Saint Nicholas gave a poor father back in the 3rd Century.  The father didn’t have a dowry for his three daughters, a necessity for marriage in Asia Minor at the time.  To save the young women from the alternative — a life of prostitution — Sinterklaas dropped three sacks of gold coins down the chimney.

Chocolate coins are a common treat from Sinterklaas
Instead of candy canes, Dutch children receive chocolate coins from Sinterklaas.

 

7 – Traditionally, Zwarte Piet is black because he’s of North African descent. Some will say that his face is black from climbing down chimneys to deliver presents for Sinterklaas. Either way, the idea of Zwarte Piet has been called racist by some so many Zwarte Piet have evolved from full blackface to a few soot marks.

8 – Rather than hanging stockings, well-behaved Dutch children leave wooden shoes out for Sinterklaas to fill. They often leave carrots, hay, or sugar cubes for Sinterklaas’ horse along with a poem or letter for him.

Carrots left in wooden shoes for Sinterklaas' horse
Wooden shoes left for Sinterklaas with carrots for his horse, Amerigo

9 – Children in the Netherlands receive presents from Sinterklaas on December 5th, pakjesavond, instead of Christmas Eve.  Pakjesavond literally means “presents evening.”

10 – December 6th, Sinterklaas’ Feast Day, is actually the day he died and not his birthday.

11 – Nearly everyone receives a large, chocolate letter of their first initial in their wooden shoes from Sinterklaas.

Chocolate letters are very popular in the Netherlands
Chocolate letters are a very popular treat from Sinterklaas in the Netherlands

12 – Beyond the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is also celebrated in Dutch territories like Aruba.

13 – The Dutch like to separate Sinterklaas and presents from Christmas. The general rule is Sinterklaas first, then Christmas.

14 – Christmas trees aren’t put up in the Netherlands until after Sinterklaas, so don’t expect to see them until December 7th.

15 – Chocolate and pastry shop windows are full of marzipan delights at Christmastime, shaping the almond paste into everything from fruits to animals.

Fruit made out of almond paste
Marzipan fruit in the Netherlands at Christmastime

16 – Most Dutch people make or purchase Kerstkransjes, wreath-shaped almond cookies tied with a ribbon that are hung on the Christmas tree.  As you might expect, these usually quickly disappear soon after the tree is trimmed with only the ribbons remaining.

17 – The Dutch celebrate Christmas over two public holidays on both the 25th and 26th of December.

18 – About as classy as Grandma Got Runover by a Reindeer, is a Dutch Christmas song about a boy looking for his lost rabbit that ends up being served for Christmas dinner.

19 – Because children have already received presents from Sinterklaas earlier in the month, Christmas is typically celebrated by spending time with family.

The Dutch don't decorate for Christmas until after Sinterklaas has visited.
After Sinterklaas has visited, the Dutch decorate for Christmas.

20 – Each of the two days of Christmas is usually celebrated with lots of food.

21 – As a country of sailors with a long coastline, fish is often featured on Christmas including mussels, sea shrimp, salmon, and eel.

22 – But the Christmas meal can also feature a roasted bird (turkey, chicken, duck, or goose), rabbit (hopefully not the one being searched for in #18), or a rollade (thin slices of beef, pork, or chicken that are stuffed, rolled, and roasted).

23 – A thick, brandy-spiked variation of eggnog called Advocaat is often served over the holidays.

Dutch eggnog is called advocaat
Advocaat is a thick, eggnog-like drink that is spiked with brandy

24 – In rural eastern areas of the country, handmade horns are carved out of birch or elder saplings. These are often blown to celebrate Advent and Christ’s birth.

25 – Dutch Christmas decorations come down on January 6th with the Feast of the Epiphany.  

What about you?  Have you celebrated Christmas in the Netherlands or like the Dutch in any way?  Share your experiences in the comments section below!

Please note:  All photos are courtesy of the community of talented photographers over at Pixabay.

5 thoughts on “25 Surprising Facts about Christmas in the Netherlands

  1. What a fun post. I learned so much. I always received marzipan for Christmas when I was a child. My mom is German.

    1. Isn’t it awesome! Besides frites (French fries) it’s one of the things I miss most from living over there that I can’t really find here in the US. 🙂

      1. Don’t say “french” fries :/ Fries are actually typically from Belgium, sold in “Frituren”. Both the french and the dutch took it over later.

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