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Dutch Christmas Traditions: A Short Guide

by College Life
Updated on January 29, 2024

As an international student, this might be the first time you experience Dutch Christmas. While there are many Christmas traditions that are similar in more than one place, each country has its own variations and the Netherlands is not an exception. In fact, Dutch Christmas traditions have some particular elements that you should be aware of in this festive season.

Looking to bring a piece of The Netherlands home for Christmas? College Life has teamed up with a student artist that has made hand-made Christmas ornaments inspired by the traditional blue delft ceramics, made to last a lifetime because of their timeless designs.

1. Sinterklaas Avond

Important: Although Sinterklaas isn't a Christmas celebration, it is worth mentioning due to the nature of this tradition which marks the beginning of the winter holidays.  

Sinterklaas is a children's festivity in the Netherlands that has been celebrated for over 300 years. On December 5, Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) is said to come by steamboat from Spain. That is when Sinterklaas visits the homes of every child and leaves them some gifts and treats to enjoy. He’s accompanied by the controversial Black Peter (Zwarte Piet), his assistant whose face is covered with soot and who's the one going down the chimney to leave gifts for children.

Isn't Sinterklaas another name for Santa Claus?

No. The origins of Sinterklaas predate the anglicised tradition of Santa Claus. In fact, Santa Claus draws inspiration from various celebrations including Sinterklaas (adopted shortly after the Dutch colonisation of the Americas), Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas. Santa Claus.

2. Kerstpakket

If you work in a Dutch company, you will most likely receive the annual kerstpakket. This is a Christmas gift box that bosses distribute to their staff shortly before Christmas as a traditional sign of gratification for the hard work performed in the past year. The distribution of kerstpakketten comes from a historical tradition - the gift of food that was given to farm workers to take home to their families for Christmas. Nowadays, working people in the Netherlands still receive gifts from their company, and often those are food baskets.

3. Kerstbomen & Kerstman

Dutch Christmas trees (kerstbomen) appear all over the Netherlands soon after the Sinterklaas eve. People put them up in public spaces and their living rooms and decorate them with lights and ornaments. Furthermore, Dutch also have their own Father Christmas or Santa Claus called Kerstman. In the Netherlands, he is kind of a poor relative to Sinterklaas. Despite the fact that around 50% of Dutch people exchange presents on Christmas, Kerstman is still less popular than Sinterklaas.

As Kerstmas is around the corner, you’ve probably seen the amazing decorations covering the roofs and windows of your neighborhood. Check out Coolblue for interesting light arrangements like this Phillips lightstrip. It’s a simple but festive way to celebrate the holidays! 

4. Two days of Dutch Christmas

In the Netherlands, people start celebrating on the eve of December 24th (kerstavond), and continue the the celebrations on the 25th and the 26th of December. During Dutch Christmas people spend two days with their family, playing games, watching movies and eating some traditional Christmas food. As a matter of fact, to some international students this might seem strange. This is because elsewhere it’s common to spend the 26th at the local shopping malls hunting Boxing Day deals. Why not get the best of both worlds by doing some online Boxing Day sales shopping? Coolblue has an amazing collection of technology and electronics that are sure to be at a great price.

5. Christmas Food

Christmas's food

What’s Christmas without some delicious food? Dutch Christmas treats are perfect for those who love sweets as they traditionally consist of such ingredients as spices, dried fruits, sugar, almonds and white flour. Some of the typical treats are:

  • Kruidnoten - these delicious biscuits, more common around Sinterklaas (December 5th) are made with speculaas spices, a dutch favourite. 
  • Kerstkransjes – 'wreath cookies' (used also to decorate the Christmas tree)
  • Kerststol – a Dutch Christmas loaf, made with nuts and fruits and a rich almond paste in the centre, also eaten during easter.
  • Speculaas - biscuits made with the much-loved speculaas spices: white pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom and nutmeg.
  • Oliebolen - a doughy ball of deep-fried goodness, usually available throughout the winter season, but especially popular around new year’s eve.
  • Appelbeignets – Dutch apple fritters
  • Advocaat - egg-yolk liqueur
  • Bischopswijn – Dutch mulled wine

While these are some of the delicacies enjoyed during the season, on the two Christmas days the Dutch love to have gourmetten. To understand this Dutch tradition think of Korean Barbecue with a Dutch twist. For this special type of meal, people cook their own food on a small electric grill or pan in the middle of the table. Types of foods grilled can include meats, veggies, fish or even eggs. This tradition really is one of the most gezellig activities you can do.

6. Dutch Christmas songs and music

Music has an important role in Dutch Christmas traditions. As an international student most likely you’ve noticed that Dutch Christmas songs are played on the radio, in the shopping malls and Christmas markets. Among others, you’ll hear such traditional Dutch Christmas & Sinterklaas songs as 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). If you're ambitious enough to learn a Dutch Christmas song yourself, visit this site for English translations.

Another interesting musical tradition, mainly from the east of the Netherlands, is that of the “midwinterhoorn” (Mid-winter horn). People in these regions play this instrument in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and up until January 6th.

Have a very Vrolijk Kersfeest!

Have you noticed an interesting Dutch Christmas tradition? Connect with us and tell about it!

22 comments on “Dutch Christmas Traditions: A Short Guide”

    1. A lot of wrong info. Those songs are songs for st Nicholas day Dec 5th. When the Dutch children receive their gifts

      1. Hi Lisa,

        Thank you for the feedback! We went through the feedback that you provided with our team and updated our guide.

  1. i live in the netherlands and you have serpuring good stuf but sinter klaas is already finshed during christmas.
    Love from the Netherlands

    1. Hi Amy,

      Thank you for your comment 🙂 This article is about Christmas traditions. Since the Dutch culture celebrates Sinterklaas, we briefly introduced Sinterklaas in the first section of the guide.

  2. I live in the netherland and what you say is suprising good stuf but sinterklaas has already finshed during christmas.And we dont sing sinterklaas songs on christmas:).
    Love from the netherlands.

    1. Hi Amy!

      Thank you for your feedback and comment! We introduced Sinterklaas in the article but the article is about Christmas so, most of the information is regarding Christmas traditions in the Netherlands.

    1. Hi Amy,

      Thank you for your comment! We briefly introduced Sinterklaas in the beginning of our article due to Dutch culture traditions but the article is about Christmas.

  3. i want to go to the netherlands becaus it's so beutifaul and cool countery but do are you really sure that what you are saying is curect becaus i am going to my dutch family in the netherlands

    1. Hi Hanna,

      Thank you for your comment! If you have any questions, please let us know. We will try our best to answer it all!

  4. it it good info but we celebrate sinterklaas on December 5 and christmas on December 25 i love christmas and i love from the nederlands

    1. Hi Amy,

      Thank you for the comment! The information that you mentioned is already in the article. Please let us know if you have any other feedback!

    1. Hi Amy,

      Thank you for the feedback! We implemented the feedback that we received from you and added information about the “kerstavond” taking place on December 24th!

  5. Hi! I remember also 'chocoladeletters' given on December 5th for Sinterklaas! The first year I was in Holland I tried to buy them for our Christmas but they were all sold out. I was ready for them the next year!

    1. Hi Julia!

      Thank you for the comment! We hope that you are going to be able to purchase them! We also love the chocoladeletters ???

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