For the Expat, December in Holland is a confusing time. Saint Nicolas? What about the Christmas Man (‘kerstman’)? Is Christmas on the 6th of December or the 25th? And what about all the festive food items in the Albert Heijn? When does one consume what?
Dutch holiday season starts early
Where many countries look at Christmas as December 25th, plain and simple, and a celebration of good food and an excuse to test home-made ‘fine dining’ with close family and friends. Or the time for a Christmas (br)unch, where ‘fine dining’ has been replaced with barbeque, lamb roast and a mint sauce pot luck, such as is a common sight over Christmas in New Zealand. Maybe for others Christmas starts with Christmas Eve and a midnight mass at the local Church for the once-yearly session of piousness. But that’s about all the excitement (apart from Boxing Day sales of course), and it is pretty straight forward to understand, Christmas pudding aside.
But here in the Netherlands there are multiple opportunities for celebration, eating and matching the appropriate food to the occasion: Sinterklaas (Saint Nicolas Day), Kerstnacht (Christmas Eve), Kerstdag (Christmas Day), Tweede Kerstdag (Boxing Day, or literally ‘Second Christmas Day’), and the elusive Derde Kerstdag.
Christmas in the Netherlands: The Dutch December highlights
Pakjesavond/Sinterklaas, 5 December (this is actually the main celebration of Sinterklaas, the evening before Saint Nicolas Day, 6 December. Just like celebrating Christmas Eve – but then it’s the main deal).
Lots of Sinterklaas-related food items can be eaten around this time, including chocolate letters, pepernoten (not the small, round spiced bite-sized biscuits, but a softer, chewy piece of spiced cookie), taaitaai, the chewier version of Holland’s Gingerbread man, and marzipan figurines.
Saint Nicolas Day, 6 December. Most of Holland is focused on the fun parts of receiving presents the evening before. Do note that Saint Nicolas died on this day (it’s not his birthday), and that he was the patron saint of not only children, but also of repentant thieves, sailors, archers, merchants, brewers, and even pawnbrokers and students in various European countries/cities!
Christmas in the Netherlands: Kerstnacht, 24 December. Time to go to church. After midnight mass families often go home to have a midnight snack or ‘breakfast’ eaten in the early hours upon arriving home when Christmas Day has broken. See point (3) below.
Christmas in the Netherlands: Kerstdag, 25 December. Family time. Breakfast with ‘kerststol’, similar to a hot cross bun but then with an extra almond spice surprise running through the middle in one loaf of excitement. Dinner will be as ‘fine dining’ as the Dutch can get, which is epitomized as the cozy and hands on, self-cooking, raclette-styled ‘Gourmetten’. As a small, sweet afterthought you can engage in nibbling on a piece ‘kerstkrans’, or the Dutch almond Christmas pastry ring, which needs to be cut into small strips of ever decreasing thickness, or the whole (extended) family won’t be able to indulge along with you.
Christmas in the Netherlands: Tweede kerstdag, 26 December. Dutch Boxing Day is spent eating left overs, and seeing the rest of the family, other family and/or doing something considered extremely mild activity, such as going for a gentle walk in the woods or beach, or floating through a ‘woonboulevard’, the local version of a home furnishings strip mall, Dutch style. Other than these, most shops in the Netherlands are not open, showing continuing Dutch resistance to the tradition of spending quality time together as 22 million British families do during Boxing Day sales.
Derde kerstdag, 27 December. Gaining popularity as an extra food eating day with the other, other family members such as the step family. It is not an official public holiday in the Netherlands, while the first and second Christmas days are. Just another reason to eat more mediocre Dutch Christmas “cuisine” under the umbrella of it being ‘gezellig’.
Olliebollen. This is not a Christmas food, but rather a December food item, which pops up spontaneously in many ‘olliebollenkramen’, or a food cart during November and December. The olliebol is a Dutch version of the donut, but has less taste, currents thrown in and has much, much more oil absorbed. That’s probably why it’s called an “oil ball”. These fried balls are meant to be eaten on New Year’s Eve.
Kerstkransjes. These are not to be confused with ‘kerstkrans’, seeing the former are small wreathes made from chocolate (cookies), fondant or meringue, all to be hung in the Christmas tree and nibbled on randomly throughout the month of December. The latter are large cake-sized pastries not meant to be hanging anywhere.
Kersttrui. Not yet as popular as in other countries, but the Dutch are increasingly becoming cornier by the year. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_jumper
Advocaat. The Dutch eggnog equivalent but so thick you need to eat it with a miniature spoon. Often eaten around Christmas time. Try a Fluffy Duck cocktail*, and feel just like a Dutchie.
*Do note, never has anyone been seen drink anything resembling a Fluffy Duck here in the Netherlands, but this Christmas you can be the first!