Christmas in the Netherlands is a joyous celebration marked by family gatherings, delicious food and holiday traditions. The Dutch have somehow managed to keep their Christmases relatively non-commercial, and this relaxed atmosphere comes as a pleasant surprise to many expats. We’ve put together a practical guide to help you understand the wonderful Dutch Christmas traditions.

The Lengthy Dutch Holiday Season

Whereas a Dutch Christmas is much alike to those in other Western countries, expats and travelers will also notice a few peculiar differences. The holiday season kicks off long before Dutch Christmas proper during the second weekend of November with the arrival of Sinterklaas, a solemn old man sporting a silver beard and red-white suit, much like a slimmed-down version of the well-known Santa Claus. Bringer of presents and sweets, Sinterklaas is long-awaited by all Dutch children and it should therefore not come as a surprise that the giving of gifts is an understated, and in many cases absent element of Dutch Christmas traditions.

Yet Christmas in the Netherlands is by no means the unloved sister of Sinterklaas: the moment the good old man leaves the country on the 6th of December, shops and municipalities all over the Netherlands get busy hanging up festive lights, candles and wreaths. The putting up of trees is also part of Dutch Christmas traditions. You will see decorated fir trees not only behind store windows but also at home in people’s living rooms. The Dutch fill their trees with baubles, lights, and kerstkranjes – sweet cookies with a hole in the middle, pushed onto the tree’s branches.

Christmas in the Netherlands
Christmas in the Netherlands is all about gezelligheid (conviviality)

Dutch Christmas Food

Kerstkransjes set the tone for typical Dutch Christmas food: sweet options dominate the table. Appelbollen, fried apple beignets, are sold at corner stands, as well as oliebollen, fried batter balls sprinkled with powdered sugar. At home you will be served kerststol, a sweet bread loaf spiced with cinnamon and filled with raisins, and banketstaaf, pastry stuffed with a rich almond paste.

In line with the Dutch no-nonsense attitude, a Dutch Christmas dinner does not demand any complicated, time-consuming preparations. In fact, most common is the practice of gourmetten. An electric raclette grill is placed on the table and guests fry up slices of meat, vegetables and cheese in their own little pans. Very practical and lots of fun!

Curious about other typical Dutch delicacies? Check out our guide on the Dutch food culture.

Unique Christmas Traditions in the Netherlands

Foreigners beware: Christmas Eve is completely ignored in the Netherlands. Christmas in the Netherlands only starts on the 25th December, which the Dutch call Eerste Kerstdag, or the first day of Christmas. The 26th is unpretentiously named Tweede Kerstdag, the second day of Christmas. Spending quality time with family lies at the heart of Dutch Christmas traditions, and so both days are spent visiting extended family all over the country. Two elaborate Christmas dinners in a row is therefore not uncommon!

The religious roots of Christmas have become near to invisible in the Netherlands, although a minority still visits their local Church to sing traditional carols and watch the Christmas nativity play. One religious remnant is the Dutch Christmas tradition of mid-winter horn blowing, traditionally performed by farmers in the east of the Netherlands. Standing at the frozen edge of one of the Netherland’s many lakes, rivers or ditches, the penetrating call of the wooden horn announces the birth of baby Jesus. Nowadays, the horn has become more of a symbolic artifact, lovingly displayed in living room vitrines.

Depending on where in the Netherlands you live, you might stumble across other Dutch Christmas traditions. What is for sure is that many families have developed their own unique rituals and habits. If you’re lucky enough to get invited to a Dutch Christmas event, we can only encourage you to accept – whatever traditions are celebrated, festive joy is always on the menu!

Merry Christmas in Dutch

During the two Christmas days, as well as the week leading up to it, it’s common to wish each other a Merry Christmas. You will soon notice that the Dutch have quite a few variants to this simple phrase up their sleeves. Vrolijk kerstfeest literally means “Merry Christmas” in Dutch. However, you are also likely to hear Prettige kerstdagen, a phrase that means “Happy Christmas holidays” and refers to the two days of Christmas in the Netherlands.

With the New Year around the corner, it’s also not uncommon to wish a merry Christmas along with a happy New Year. You can wish people Vrolijke feestdagen, “Happy holidays”, or simply Beste Wensen, which translates as “Best Wishes”. You can also get more specific with the phrase Fijne kerstdagen en een gelukkig nieuwjaar, “Merry Christmas and a happy New Year”. Using these phrases with colleagues or in the supermarket is bound to get you into the groove of a Dutch Christmas!

Dutch Christmas WishEnglish Translation
Vrolijke feestdagenHappy holidays
Prettige kerstdagenHappy Christmas holidays
Fijne kerstdagenMerry Christmas
Beste wensenBest wishes (Christmas and New Year)
Fijne kerstdagen en een gelukkig nieuwjaarMerry Christmas and a happy New Year

Want to learn some more useful Dutch words and phrases? Check out our Dutch learning resources. Perfect for travelers and expats and anyone who’d like to learn basic Dutch.

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