Ho, ho, ho! Christmas is here! The – normally – most wonderful time of the year is definitely going to be somewhat different this year, and maybe even difficult for some of us, so we thought it would be a good idea to try to raise everyone’s holiday spirit with an article that reminds us that Christmas can still be fun, even in 2020.
So, go on, get yourself all cosied up on the couch with a nice cup of hot cocoa, because we are about to take you through some of our favourite Dutch Christmas words and traditions, which is going to be very gezellig (fun, cosy, enjoyable) indeed. Incorrigible Christmas addicts, expat newcomers and Dutch language beginners, what follows is for you!
Christmas in the Netherlands may not be as big of a deal as the Sinterklaas celebrations of 5 December, but Dutchies are still just like the rest of us mere mortals: they never turn their backs on a bit of winter magic. I am sure you noticed, since people around here never really bother to close their curtains, that as soon as the old Sint left the country, the Christmas tree wasn’t long in coming to every Dutch living room. The busy couple of days immediately following the Sinterklaasfeest (Saint Nicholas party) are spent decorating the house by most Dutch families and this marks the beginning of the feestdagen (the end-of-year festivities, or ‘party days’, literally), which will last until Oudejaarsavond (New Year’s Eve).
Dutch people like their kerstboom (Christmas tree) just as they like their men: tall, strong and well-trimmed. They certainly don’t leave anything to chance when going tree shopping, or when picking out new ornaments. Florists and garden centres, which often like to convert themselves into specialised Christmas shops for the season, are usually good places to visit when hunting for all the latest fashion in kerstdecoraties (Christmas decorations). There, you will find the shiniest kerstballen (baubles), stylish glitter lintjes (ribbons), the piek (tree topper) of your dreams, and many fluffy and colourful kerstslingers (Christmas garlands).
For the truly dedicated Christmas enthusiasts with tolerant neighbours, an inflatable rendier (reindeer) or sneeuwpop (snowman) could be the final touch to a perfect front garden setup. Installing a pretty kerststal (Nativity scene) on a prominent spot in your house is also a surprisingly rather common practice in this country, even among non-religious folks.
And, of course, the Christmassy ambience would not be complete without beautiful kerstverlichting (Christmas illuminations, like the ones illuminating the city’s streets), including some scintillating kerstlampjes (Christmas lights, lamps) dressing up your tree.
Counting down the days until Christmas
The Christmas craze is assuredly less of a thing in the Netherlands than it is in other countries, such as the UK. Here, you’re unlikely to spot any cheeky elves on shelves and grown adults seldom wear matching pyjamas or Christmas sweaters. There are no long queues in shopping malls of children waiting for their turn to sit on Santa’s lap, either. Nonetheless, December in the lowlands still has its surviving Christmas traditions.
The Dutch are very fond of their Adventskalenders (you don’t need this one translated, do you?) for instance. They’ll have them with everything and anything – chocolate, sure, but also books, cosmetics, games or even beer!
Another way to get into the holiday mood as Christmas gets nearer is to display a kerstkrans (wreath) arranged with four kaarsen (candles), and to light one candle every Sunday of the Advent month.
These two traditions probably sound familiar to you if you grew up in a mainly Christian culture, but the Dutch also have their own unique customs around Christmas time, which you might never have heard of. The midwinterhoornblazen (mid-winter horn blowing) is a thing in the east of the country, in the Veluwe and Nijmegen region. Farmers there blow wooden horns every day at dawn for the entire month preceding Christmas Eve, to announce the coming of Christ. This is, by the way, much more difficult to do than it looks!
For the Dutch, Christmas is all about eating and being with loved ones. The cadeautjes (presents) are brought, largely, on 5 December by Sinterklaas and that is the main event, way busier than Christmas, as the sleep-deprived parents of overly excited kids can attest. Although the influence of American movies is growing and the commercial aspect of Christmas is gaining ground, the Kerstman (Santa Claus or Father Christmas) is still pale in comparison with the highly cherished and witty Sinterklaas, and Dutch kinderen (children) don’t care much for him, unless he comes in chocolate form.
For those who really want to offer presents at Christmas, the popular activity known as lootjes trekken (pulling straws) will do the trick. It is basically the Dutch equivalent of Secret Santa, where adults draw the name of a friend or family member and buy – or make themselves, if they are feeling creative! – a surprise gift for them, which they often accompany with a personalised poem affectionately listing the flaws of the giftee. Furthermore, employees of Dutch companies get the annual kerstpakket (Christmas hamper), which is typically a bundle of chocolate, beer or wine, Dutch food, such as cheese or tins of ragout, and gift vouchers.
Finally, sending kerstkaarten (Christmas cards) is a widespread occupation throughout December, and it can quickly represent a non-negligeable chunk of one’s shopping budget, since many Dutch people, especially the older generations, like to send cards to their neighbours, postman, children’s teachers, hairdresser’s nephew, and pretty much anyone else they ever talked to.
Dutch people eat two big Christmas meals, one on 25 December for the Eerste Kerstdag (first day of Christmas) with their own family and one on 26 December for the Tweede Kerstdag (second day of Christmas) with their schoonfamilie (in-laws), or the other way around – or twice with the same people if they all get along well. There is no Boxing Day bargain shopping spree in the Netherlands. The Kerstavond (Christmas Eve) is generally for meeting with friends and going to kerk (church) for the Kerstmis or nachtmis (Christmas Mass), which even non-churchgoers attend.
The traditional Dutch Christmas avondeten (dinner) is the very easy and convivial gourmetten. It consists of a raclette grill put at the middle of the dinner table and of a big assortment of vlees (meat) and groenten (vegetables). Each guest can cook their food themselves using the mini pans on the grill. For the rest, you better be a zoetekauw (have a sweet tooth) because, even though there are no candy canes, the Dutch Christmas treats are quite the sugar feast. These are the most common ones:
• Speculaas are the internationally famous spiced cinnamon-ginger biscuits, actually savoured by the Dutch all year round, yet undoubtedly a must in everyone’s cupboards around Christmas.
• The kerststol is a delicious bread loaf made with fruits and sweet almond paste.
• Oliebollen (literally, balls of oil) are sweet batter fritters. More than a Christmas snack, they are a winter comfort food, with their enticing smell already starting to escape from street food stands and to come tickle our senses every year in early November.
That’s about it for this Dutch language Christmas Special! We hope you enjoyed it. You can now get back to watching your beloved cheesy Christmas movies and resume to merrily singing ‘All I want for Christmas is youuuuuu’. But just one last thing before you go, to see if you paid attention: what is the Dutch word for ‘Christmas’?
We wish you prettige kerstdagen en een gelukkig nieuwjaar!
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