As the days grow shorter, the celebration days mount up. It starts with Sint Maarten’s in November through to Sinterklaas, Christmas and New Year – with the newly established Valentine’s Day and the occasional birthday thrown in for good measure. The Netherlands simply does not skimp when it comes to marking special days. And for the most part, the focus is usually on the family and (fatty) food.
New Year’s Eve (Oud en Nieuw) is usually a cacophony of booms and cascading lights, as the city erupts in hundreds, if not thousands, of firework displays. While certainly stunning, it can also be overwhelming. Perhaps the 2020 firework ban will mark the beginning of a less chaotic New Year’s tradition. Sparklers and champagne anyone?
New Year’s Day is a whole other fish. Tens of thousands of the Dutch run to the sea and dive in for a polar bear dip. They then have a sausage before checking if they won the lottery – and go rich into the new year. In 2021, the group event is cancelled due to coronavirus safety concerns, but that doesn't have to stop you from taking a bracing dive in the nearest body of water or, in a pinch, a cold shower will work. The rest of the day is spent chilling (or warming back up) with the family.
Key phrase: ‘Gelukkig Nieuwjaar’
Key snack: ‘Oliebollen’ (‘oil balls’, deep-fried blob of dough that traditionally keeps your belly gelled together when you drink too much)
Key quirk: It’s all quirk: from fire to ice water (see above).
Birthdays are a big deal – even your mother-in-law’s. And it must be celebrated – otherwise you will be deemed as anti-social. And as the person celebrating a birthday, you pick up the tab – on the cake and on the drinks. Mostly the parties are held at home on the closest Sunday afternoon and everyone sits in a big circle and shouts at each other across the room. Upon arrival, you not only congratulate the birthday person, you also congratulate those close to them – partner, children, neighbor, dog. HIstorically, each person is greeted with three kisses (before the 1.5-metre rule), on alternating cheeks, leading to a sometimes dizzying amount of birthday smooches. These parties are usually for close family only – so it’s a big deal if you are invited.
At such a gathering, you follow a tight eating and drinking schedule: first coffee and cake, then a second round of coffee, then perhaps you finally get a proper drink backed by greasy snacks.
The Dutch also have a particular obsession for 50th birthday parties when you are deemed either an ‘Abraham’ or a ‘Sarah’ for some strange biblical reason, often complete with an inflatable depiction. Friends and family will often also write poems and songs meant to take you down a notch or two – in a gezellig way.
Key phrase: ‘Gefeliciteerd!’ (‘Congratulations!’)
Key snack: Cake (as paid for by the birthday person…)
Key quirk: Birthdays are carefully tracked on a ‘birthday calendar’ that invariably hangs beside a Dutch home’s main toilet. This ensures you don’t forget – because you simply can’t forget such an important day.
It only came to the Netherlands in the 1990s but Valentine’s Day is now an established celebration. The Dutch are famous for favouring simplicity over grand gestures on this day of love. Forgo the skywriting and focus on the classics: flowers, chocolate and a smooch.
Key phrase: ‘Happy Valentine’s Day moppie.’
Key snack: chocolate (not bitterballen)
Key quirk: The Dutch are not known for their flair for romance, but they’re falling in love with this holiday. Maybe because it is so cheesy?
It may resemble Halloween but it’s not – though their origins are equally foggy. Taking place on 11 November, Sint Maarten’s does however feature primary school age children going door-to-door asking for candy (and are often disappointed when they get mandarins instead). But they are also singing and holding self-crafted lanterns. Celebrated more in the Catholic corners of the country, the day commemorates Saint Martin of Tours, who was a Roman soldier-turned-bishop who famously tore off half of his military uniform to share with a beggar – who then, in turn, had a vision of the coming of Jesus.
Key phrase: ‘11 november is de dag, dat mijn lichtje, dat mijn lichtje branden mag’ (basically: ‘11 November is the day that my light can burn’).
Key snacks: Candy and mandarins
Key quirk: Now crafted from paper and bicycle lights, the lanterns were traditionally fashioned from sugar beets.
The most important day of the year for any Dutch child is undoubtedly 5 December – the day Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) brings presents. Officially St. Nicholas' Day is on 6 December, and in fact the whole show actually kicks off on the first Saturday after St Maarten’s when Sinterklaas shows up in the Netherlands on a steamship from Spain accompanied by his Pieten (his mischief-loving friends and helpers).
Endless crowds of children are on hand to greet St. Nick’s boat, and from that evening, children sing a song and leave a shoe out with some fruit or carrots for Sinterklaas’s white stallion – with the Pieten leaving candy or small gifts behind. Meanwhile, the whole nation plays along, watching a nightly news programme – the Sinterklaasjournaal – which reports on the latest news around the activities of Sint and his helpers.
This shared candy-fuelled revelry continues for almost a month before climaxing on 5 December with Pakjesavond (presents evening). Families gather, treasure hunts are undertaken, teasing poems are written and read, and a rainbow of different candy treats are eaten. Then comes a bonk on the door: outside awaits a bag of presents. Chaos ensues. Then boom it’s over: the next day Sinterklaas gets back on his boat and returns to Spain.
On 7 December, you are allowed to start decorating for Christmas and the New Year. Unless you enjoy being scowled at by Dutch grandparents, do not even think about putting up a Christmas tree before then.
Key phrase: “Sinterklaas Kapoentje, gooi wat in m'n schoentje, gooi wat in m'n laarsje. Dank u, Sinterklaasje.” (loosely translated: “Yo Sint, give me some candy. Thanks.”
Key snacks: pepernoten (ginger-spiced mini-cookies), letter-shaped chocolate and animal-shaped marzipan (perhaps referring to the traditional end of slaughter season).
Key quirk: Traditionally, Sinterklaas rewarded good children with candy, but naughty kids were put into a sack and taken back to Spain — that is until 2020 when Sint made a formal apology for this rather ‘unfortunate’ habit.
Christmas Eve in the Netherlands is business as usual, but Christmas Day, known as 'Eerste Kerstdag' (first Christmas day), and the day after Christmas, called 'Tweede Kerstdag' (second Christmas day), are warm, family celebrations. People display Christmas cards along a cord that hangs in the living room and adorn the tree with edible ornaments — cookies or chocolates with hollow centres that can be skewered onto the branches of the tree.
The Dutch like to stress that they don’t like the commercial aspects of Christmas – which is a bit rich considering the mass of toys and candy that are thrown around the month leading up to Sinterklaas. And for many families with children, there’s still room to have the ‘Christmas Man’ (the Kerstman, a dead-ringer for Santa) who swoops in from Finland to deliver even more presents.
In general, 25 December is usually a mellow family affair enjoyed over an extended meal, with perhaps a little Midnight Mass thrown in. The 26th is usually spent similarly with the other side of the family. The favoured second-Christmas-day meal is called 'gourmetten', which is a little stove that is put on the table and where everyone prepares their own meal while seated.
Key phrase: 'Prettige Kerst' (Happy Christmas)
Key food: ‘Gourmetten’ is a very traditional Christmas meal. Everyone has their own mini cooking set to make their own meal – sort of the opposite of fondue, another popular choice. Dessert often features advocaat, a sweet egg-yolk liqueur. Gezellig!
Key quirk: A song called ‘Flappie’ is insanely popular at this time of year. It’s about looking for a lost rabbit – which finally reappears roasted for Xmas dinner. Lekker!
Looking for more ways to channel the Dutch during the holidays? Check out these 10 winters foods to eat in Amsterdam.