How do the Dutch celebrate Christmas?

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It is almost Christmas. And of course the Dutch have their own way of celebrating it.

So what is typically Dutch about celebrating Christmas in the Netherlands?

The expats in this video discovered some differences and guess what?

Foreigners like the Dutch kerstmis!

Christmas period

The Christmas season starts on the 5th (or sometimes 6th of December), the day after the last most important Sinterklaas celebration when children receive their presents.

That is when Dutch people look for a Christmas tree to set up in their living room.

Dutch Christmas tradition #1: setting up a Christmas tree

This is essential to a Dutch Christmas. You can be as creative as you want with this. People living in small apartments set up small trees with just some lights.

Others go crazy and set up enormous trees decorated with everything you can imagine. The last day you can leave your Christmas tree up is January 6th. That day is known as the Epiphany.

Dutch Christmas tradition #2: sending cards to family and friends

Another one of the Christmas traditions in the Netherlands is to send Christmas cards to family and friends. As you probably know, you send a Christmas card to wish someone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Of course, with the rise of social media the number of cards sent has decreased. But people still love to send and receive cards!

Dutch Christmas tradition #3: listening to music

After Sinterklaas, on the radio, in all the supermarkets and – well… almost everywhere – you won’t hear anything other than Christmas songs. Also in the Netherlands, people like to listen to the classic hits from Mariah Carey and Wham!

There are not too many Dutch Christmas hits. The most popular ones are:

  • Andres Hazes – Een eenzame Kerst
  • Youp van ‘t Hek – Flappie

Another Dutch tradition is that after Christmas we switch from Christmas songs to the Top 2000. Since the year 2000 this has been an important event for everyone. This is a list of the 2000 most popular songs in the Netherlands. A lot of people listen to it.

Dutch Christmas tradition #4: going to Church on Christmas eve

Because it is originally a Christian celebration, many people go to church over Christmas.

On Christmas Eve, the evening before Christmas, there are many church services held to commemorate the birth of Jesus and to mark the start of Christmas. The service is usually adapted to people who don’t know much about the gospel, because often people come who are not regular churchgoers.

Christmas eve (Kerstavond)

As some students say in the video, Christmas Eve is mostly for meeting with friends. A nice warm up for the next days.

Dutch Christmas tradition #5: Christmas shopping and Christmas markets    

Traditionally people go shopping in the weeks before Christmas, to buy presents for each other. Usually the shopping streets are illuminated and decorated and the shop windows are full of Christmas scenes.

Christmas market in Maastricht

Over Christmas there are also a lot of Christmas markets. And one of the most popular is in Maastricht. This market attracts many visitors from all over the Netherlands and surrounding countries.    

It typifies the image of Oud-Hollandse (old Dutch) Christmas with Dutch entertainments such as the ice rink, the Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, and typical Dutch winter food like oliebollen and stroopwafels.

Dutch Christmas tradition #6: doing a ‘surprise’ with friends   

One thing that is quite popular to do is a ‘surprise’ (French pronunciation). About a month in advance, everyone in a group takes part in a draw to get the name of the person to whom they are going to give a surprise present.

Craft lovers are enthusiastic about this. Some groups just buy a present. Usually it is accompanied with a poem about this person. And in this poem you can write about his or her flaws.

Other Dutch people spend Christmas Eve peacefully to mentally prepare for the next few days which can be quite intense.

Dutch Christmas tradition #7: Two days!

On December 25 we celebrate the First Christmas day. The 26th of December we call Tweede Kerstdag.

It is safe to say that nowadays Christmas in the Netherlands is as much about eating and being with friends or family, as about religion and presents.

What do the Dutch do at Christmas?

Like the people say in the video, being with family and eating. That’s the program for a lot of Dutch people.

Dutch Christmas tradition #8: Gourmetten

A typical Dutch Christmas meal is ‘gourmetten’ (using a raclette grill). This is not just eating, it’s more like an activity in which you sit at the table with small pans on a grill. Everyone cooks their own food, using different ingredients on the table.

If you’re not in the fortunate position that it’s agreed to gourmetten, then it’s likely that you’re going to have to cook something. Because in a lot of households it is usual for everyone to prepare a dish. And of course, this is organized so that you know in advance what you are going to prepare.

Christmas in the Netherlands is not so much about presents. That is what Sinterklaas is for. Kerst is about the family being together and having enormous dinners.

Dutch Christmas tradition #9: Presents

Over Christmas when only a few presents are given, there are different ways of giving them. One is that you draw a name, this is called ‘lootjes trekken’. And you buy one gift for this person. Or you buy presents for everybody.

But in general, the Dutch have already spent their ‘gift budget’ at Sinterklaas.

Dutch Christmas tradition #10: Watch Dutch Christmas movies

You probably know the famous Christmas movies like Home Alone or The Nightmare before Christmas, but there are some Dutch Christmas movies as well.

In general you could say there are two types of Dutch Christmas movies.

Children’s / family movies like Pietje Bel (2002) or Finn (2013).

On the other hand there are the romantic comedy movies like Mannenharten (2013) and Alles is Familie (2012)

Is Christmas in the Netherlands a good time?

Most people in the country say, yes!

It’s less commercial than in other countries. In the Netherlands we’ve got Sinterklaas for that. And one word that defines Christmas is gezellig.

All being together in the living room, phones off, snow outside. But there are others who are happy when it’s all over and life gets back to normal.

Bart de Pau
online Dutch teacher & founder of the Dutch Summer School & Dutch Winter School