In The Netherlands, the most important day for children is the 5th of December which is St. Nicholas’ Eve or ‘Pakjesavond’ means ‘present evening’ when St. Nicholas delivers presents. Children will leave a shoe out by the fireplace or on a windowsill and sing St Nicholas songs. Most of the songs date from the 19th and early 20th century. They also believe that if they leave some hay and carrots in their shoes for St Nicholas’s horse, they will be left some sweets or small presents.
‘Pepernoot’ are sweet biscuits that are eaten at ‘Sinterklaas’ parties, which are made with cinnamon and spices in the biscuit mix. Christmas celebrations in The Netherlands are separate from the visit of Sinterklaas.
Christmas Day in The Netherlands is traditionally a quiet day with a church service and a family meal. Sometimes there is a special Christmas Day ‘Sunday School’ in the afternoon at the church, where the Christmas Story and other traditional stories are told.
On Christmas Eve night, Dutch children believe that Santa Claus, who is also called ‘Christmas man’ / ‘Kerstman’ to avoid confusion with Sinterklaas, comes from Lapland in Finland to deliver more presents. Christmas Day is known as ‘Eerste Kerstdag’ (first Christmas day) and the day after Christmas is called ‘Tweede Kerstdag’ (second Christmas day). On Tweede Kerstdag, people often visit their families and larger shops are often open. The traditional way to eat with the family is called ‘gourmetten’, which is a little stove that is put on the table and where everyone prepares their own meal while seated.
Many people in The Netherlands also have a Christmas tree in their house. The Christmas tree is called the paradise tree. One can buy artificial trees or real pine trees. Some people build wooden Christmas pyramids and decorate them with evergreens and candles. In Dutch Happy/Merry Christmas can be said as ‘Prettige Kerst’ (Happy Christmas), ‘Zalig Kerstfeest’ or ‘Zalig Kerstmis’ (both mean Merry Christmas) or ‘Vrolijk Kerstfeest’ (Cheerful Christmas).
A personal story:
By Annelieke McGillivary
Q1. What do you have for Christmas dinner?
At Christmas time in the Netherlands ‘gourmetten’ is a popular and traditional way to eat. It involves putting a hot plate / grill in the middle of the table with some small pans underneath. You cook mini pieces of meat, seafood and vegetables yourself and you can also make mini omelettes in the small pans.
Q2. What is your fondest memories of Christmas?
Spending time with family and loved ones! Especially this year I’ve learned not to take family time for granted. We also traditionally go for a nice long family walk.
Q3. What types of presents do you get from friends and family?
It’s only in recent years the Dutch give presents to each other at Christmas. We have another celebration, mainly for children, on the 5th of December (‘Sinterklaas’) which involves giving presents so most families with children don’t do many presents at Christmas. When I grew up we got 1 present each at Christmas whilst celebrating Sinterklaas with more presents. The type of presents are similar to the presents given here; toys, perfume, books, board games etc.