Christmas Traditions in the Netherlands
He’s not a king, but since he wears traditional bishop clothes, is exuberantly greeted by local dignitaries and rides a horse throughout a grand parade, he might be mistaken for one.
He is St. Nicholas, known as Sinterklaas, and his arrival in the Netherlands is the high point of revelry in the Christmas season for the 16.5 million people known principally as the Dutch but also as Netherlanders.
The kingdom of the Netherlands -- located north of Belgium, west of Germany and facing the North Sea on the north and west -- is in a prime location to receive this princely figure: arriving from Spain on a steamer, Sinterklaas comes to shore in a different Dutch town each year on the last Saturday of November.
Church bells and brass bands compete for musical attention as Sinterklaas travels through town, accompanied by his servant, Black Peter. He shakes the hands of shopkeepers who close their doors for the important occasion, but it’s the children he especially gravitates towards. He always wants to know, “Have you been good?”
Dutch television stations broadcast the annual scene as if St. Nicholas truly was a visiting king – and to the Dutch, Sinterklaas is the next best thing. In fact, in the years that he has arrived in the capital city of Amsterdam, he has traveled a straight path to meet the queen in her palace. (Broadcasters often use this time to gently remind viewers in other countries that “the Netherlands” and “Holland” are not interchangeable. Holland is a province located in the westernmost part of the Netherlands, and the country overall, not just Holland, is recognized for its popular tulips and windmills.)
Nearly every town in the Netherlands now hosts its own Sinterklaas parade, and in some places the man in red velvet may make his grand entrance to town by carriage, moped or helicopter before setting up his “headquarters” at a grand hotel.
Sinterklaas needs a base of operations because in the days before St. Nicholas Day, on December 6, he visits children at schools, hospitals, department stores, malls and their homes. They return the affection by singing Sinterklaas songs and leaving carrots, hay, apples and perhaps a saucer of water for his horse.
The next morning, children may find chocolate coins, hard candy, or pepemoten, the Dutch equivalent of Pfeffernüsse cookies, in their shoes or next to their beds. In some families, Sinterklaas may stop by every night until St. Nicholas Day; it all depends on how well-behaved the children have been.
The Dutch embrace an element of suspense on St. Nicholas Eve, too, when they typically exchange gifts. In fact, the Dutch often call them “surprises,” and for good reason: many families enjoy challenging their gift recipients by wrapping a tiny gift inside a huge box, concealing a gem inside a rich, thick pudding or sinking a coin deep within a vegetable. The hunt becomes part of the fun.
Similarly, Sinterklaas “treasure hunt” parties are popular, and families will
spend an entire evening deciphering clues and riddles that lead them to their gifts. The evening is sweetened by the inclusion of marzipan, or pastries that are made in the shape of the first letter of the names of people who attend the party.
To top off the evening, Dutch families will celebrate with food prepared in a gourmetten, or a small, tabletop grill that they gather around to cook dinner in together. The gourmetten may be divided into sections: the bottom, where bite-sized pieces of meat, potatoes and vegetables are grilled, and the top, where people scoop up the cooked food with a small spatula and eat it.
The bottom portion of the gourmetten may be further divided into sections to accommodate different grilling preferences, from rare to well-done. So if people are in a hurry to eat, or wish to eat a full plate of food in one sitting, setting up the gourmetten is probably not a good idea. But during Christmas, and especially for social families, the gourmetten is an ideal way to bring everyone together for a leisurely meal -- especially if there is enough brood (bread), Gouda cheese (for which the Netherlands is famous) and knofloofkboter (garlic butter) to go around.
In places where the gourmetten hasn’t caught on, Dutch families might enjoy roasted pork or goose, turkey, rabbit or venison. Universally, the Dutch indulge their taste for sweets with stolen ( a round bread filled with almond paste and sweet fruit), speculaas (molded spice cookies), kerstkransies (Christmas wreath cookies) and kerstkrans (a wreath-shaped pastry decorated with fruit and filled with sweet almond paste).
Christmas Day is usually much quieter in the Netherlands, as is December 26, which is known as “Second Christmas Day.”
Still, the Dutch may strain to hear expressions of "Vrolijk Kerstfeest" (Merry Christmas), for farmers blow horns across the fields and captains trigger their foghorns in a final announcement of Christ’s birth. The Dutch say the sounds vibrate off the North Sea -- and, if so, it seems like the perfect ending for a season that also begins along the shore, with the arrival of the country’s beloved St. Nicholas.