Christmas Traditions: The Netherlands

Roxanne Braam

Growing up, my family and I celebrated Christmas in the standard Canadian way. Tree, turkey dinner, open one present on Christmas Eve, wake up way too early on Christmas morning and then drift through a sugar coma for two days. It’s the kind of Christmas you expect to see in any North American home.

Since getting married, I’ve loved that my husband’s family has such different traditions than I had growing up. Their Dutch heritage is a factor in that.

The day that kids in the Netherlands look forward to most isn’t December 25. Instead Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) brings their presents on December 5. His companion, Zwarte Piet, has a book in which he has kept track of all the children’s’ behavior throughout the year (both good and bad). If you are good you get presents. If you are bad you will receive a bundle of sticks (as a warning for the punishment you could have received) or a lump of coal.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are believed to live in Spain, and each year when they come to the Netherlands they arrive by boat, arriving at different ports each year so that all have a chance to see them. Of course Sinterklaas has many helpers who dress up like him so that no one misses out!

Next is the food, which is by far one of my favourite things! Speculaas, pepernoot, and kruidnoten are my favourites of the sweets. There are also chocolate letters of the first letter in your name. At gatherings you might even find a cake of some kind in the shape of the first letter of the family name.

The main feast varies in the Netherlands just as much as it does in North America. There is really no wrong or right menu. Turkey, seafood, vegetables… Everything is fair game!

When December 25 does arrive, it is a much quieter affair. There are special church services, the post office and banks are closed, and everyone relaxes with family and friends.

The night before is when Santa Claus (though there he is known as Christmas Man to avoid confusion with Sinterklaas) arrives from Finland to deliver more presents!

These are far from everything there is to know about Christmas in the Netherlands, but they are some of the things that have stuck with me over the rest and a few of them are things that I’ve even managed to incorporate into my own new Christmas traditions. That’s the beauty of combining families; there is always room for new traditions.