The Customs of Christmas

Christmas Around the World — Netherlands

St. Nicholas in the St. Nicholas Parade in the NetherlandsThe Christmas season in the Netherlands begins in mid-November with the arrival of Sinterklaas, his white horse Amerigo, and his servant Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).

In the 1600s when the Netherlands colonized Sinterklaas came with them. When the English took over the Dutch colony Sinterklaas became Santa Claus.

The Dutch people believe that Sinterklaas and Black Pete lives in Spain. Every year in mid-November they board the steam ship Spanje (Dutch for Spain) for the trip to the Netherlands. At one time Sinterklaas always arrived first in Amsterdam. Now he makes his first appearance in a different city each year. After he makes his arrival in the first city, Sinterklaas may visit other towns and villages in the Netherlands arriving by helicopter, carriage, bicycle, or even taxi.

No matter where he disembarks he is met by city officials and other dignitaries who join him in parade in his honor. This parade is televised throughout the whole country. All children enjoy seeing the large balloons, brass bands, acrobats and other entertainers, and dozens of floats, but they are really watching for the honored guest, Sinterklaas, dressed, not in a red suit, but in his bishop's vestments, a white robe, crimson mantle, tall red mitre headdress, and gloves carrying a golden staff shaped like a shepherd's crook. Riding Amerigo and accompanied by his companion Black Pete, dressed in the costume of a 16th century Spanish page with long stockings, short puffed britches, tight-fitting jacket, pleated collar, and a plumbed Tudor bonnet or Beefeater hat, Sinterklaas greets as many children as he can along the parade route touching hands with many of them.

Black Pete is a mischievous person, often played by a woman, who delights children with his antics jumping, hopping, skipping. He carries the big red book where Sinterklaas keeps a record of every child's behavior. He also carries a handful of switches to give to naughty children and a sack of goodies for the good children.

After the parade Sinterklaas ascends to the podium and addresses all the children whether they are present at the parade or watching on their television sets. He reminds them how he expects them to behave and may even give them hints as to what to leave him and his horse when he visits.

In the days leading up to Saint Nicholas Eve or Sinterklaas Avond (December 5), the merriest day of the Dutch Christmas season, Sinterklaas and Pete may be found visiting schools, orphanages, hospitals, homes for the elderly, shopping malls, and local store toy departments. Any where one may find the young or the young at heart one may see Sinterklaas.

Stores all across the land display elaborate decorations for the saint and have special sales on items most needed for Sinterklaas Avond meals, decorations, and gifts. Towns and villages decorate for Sinterklaas. Bakeries and confectionaries create special goodies for the season, and costume stores do a big business selling Sinterklaas and Black Pete costumes. The Dutch take great pride on portraying the saint and his companion properly attired.

Sinterklaas and Pete may visit the homes with children anytime after he arrives in the Netherlands until Saint Nicholas Eve. He may even visit more than once. Children prepare for his visit by leaving their shoes filled with carrots, hay, or other snacks for Amerigo by the fireplace or the door or even a heater. They may also leave snacks for the saint and Pete. Before heading to bed the children may sing a song to Sinterklaas in hopes that he hears them and visits that night. When the saint visits a house Pete goes down the chimney while Sinterklaas keeps watch. If the visit should come before Sinterklaas Avond Pete may leave fruit, candy, goodies, or a small gift for good children or switches for naughty children. He may even leave a note thanking the children for the horse's snacks. The main gifts are always left on Sinterklaas Avond.

As Sinterklaas Avond approaches homes, bakeries, and confectionaries start smelling of baked goodies and luscious sweets. Borstplaat, a hard, smooth fondant or sugar candy, comes in many flavors including vanilla, fruit, coffee, and chocolate, and shapes such as heart, square, circle, and star shapes. Banketletter is a favorite flaky puff pastry filled with almond paste and shaped into a letter. 'M' for mother and 'S' for Sinterklaas are favorite letters. Marzipan, a rich, almond-paste candy, comes in many shapes and colors. Favorite shapes include pigs, hamburgers, hanging sausages, fried eggs, pea soup, dice, wooden shoes, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. A favorite cookie in the Netherlands is the crisp, spicy, brown sugar cookie known as Speculaas. The cookies are pressed into special molds to give them shape and an intricate design. At one time the molds were made of wood but now metal molds are used. Another favorite honey-based cookie that is thicker and chewier than speculaas and often made into human or animal shapes sometimes weighing as much as one pound and one foot in length is the Taai-taai. As in many places throughout the world chocolate is a favorite staple of the season. Whether consisting of dark, white, or milk chocolate and decorated with light or dark chocolate frosting, sprinkles of nuts, or other decorations, a Dutch home has to make chocolate an integral part of the holiday season.

For many December 5 is still a work day and school is still in session. It is a fortunate person who gets to leave work early to do some last minute shopping before the Sinterklaas Avond celebration begins. Sumptuous dinners of venison, roast goose, roast pork, vegetables, bread, boiled chestnuts, fruit, and cookies are typical faire on this special night. After supper the children of the house may sing St. Nicholas songs hoping to hurry him along in his journey. Suddenly a loud knock is heard at the door. When the door is opened a crack the arm of Pete appears throwing handfuls of candies and goodies onto a white sheet placed on the floor. The children rush the sheet gathering as much of the goodies as they can. When the goodies are gathered and thoughts return to Sinterklaas the front door is reopened, but Pete and the saint have disappeared for another year. Now it is time for the gifts. Sometimes they may be found in a basket or sack on the front stoop or they may be hidden waiting for their recipient to find them. Sometimes Sinterklaas and Pete surprise the children by coming into the home where they quiz the children about their behavior and look into Sinterklaas' big red book to see if the children should get gifts. Somehow the children always seem to be good enough to receive gifts.

Gifts given on Sinterklaas Avond are traditionally called surprises. They are not beautifully wrapped but are cleverly disguised or camouflaged in imaginative ways. Some gifts are hidden in a box hidden in other boxes. Others may be found in hollowed out potatoes or loaves of bread. Each gift is given with a rhyme or a poem that may express gratitude or tease the recipient with humorous, good-natured kidding. Each rhyme or poem is signed from Sinterklaas signifying that the surprise comes from him.

With the passing of Sinterklaas Avond the people's thoughts turn to Christmas. Christmas is a more reverent holiday full of good will and family togetherness. Stores may change their decorations to honor Christmas, and Christmas trees arrive in the Netherlands.

Many of the Christmas trees and much of the Christmas greenery used in the Netherlands come from Norway, Finland, Germany, and Sweden. Usually the whole family will participate in the choosing and decorating of the tree. Hand-made decorations may be preferred over store-bought decorations. Tinsel, garlands, pinwheels made with colored foil, gilded, silvery, and many-colored walnuts, bead garlands, fruit (apples, oranges, tangerines, etc.), pine cones, edible decorations (cookies and chocolate), and lights are the preferred Christmas tree decorations. Many of the more religious homes may display a creche or nativity scene near the Christmas tree.

Many towns, villages, and cities hold well-attended Christmas tree lighting ceremonies in mid-December. The municipal trees are usually placed in the town square. Singing, performing, and bells from nearby churches accompany the lighting ceremony.

Christmas is a holiday of lights, and every city and town decorates with lights over their streets and outlining their bridges. Stores display lighted trees with greenery and colored ornaments. Christmas markets open selling flowers, trees, greenery, gifts, ornaments, hot drinks, and Christmas treats and much more.

By the time Christmas Eve arrives schools have let out for their Christmas break. Many businesses allow their employees to leave work early so they can get a jump on their Christmas celebrating. Some families take advantage of this extra time by visiting relatives or doing last minute shopping. Many families will attend church services together.

On Christmas morning many families attend church services especially if they did not attend the previous night. After church services they return home for Koffietafel, coffee table, an elaborate brunch consisting of such things as smoked salmon or pate and Kerstkrans (a pastry similar to Banketletter shaped like a large wreath decorated with lemon icing, candied fruit, holly, and a red bow). Families in most areas do not exchange gifts on Christmas day; but for those families who do, especially in the southern regions, Father Christmas brings the gifts.

Because Christmas day is a holiday of family togetherness, many families will either visit the homes of family and friends or entertain family and friends at their homes. They will talk, play board games, listen to the radio or other recordings, watch television, attend concerts or ballets, and sing and play Christmas carols. Throughout the day they will snack on Kerstbrood, a sweet bread filled with raisins, currants, and candied fruit peel then dusted with powdered sugar. If the weather is cold enough during the month of December the family will go to the rivers and canals to enjoy some ice skating.

At approximately 7:00 P.M. Christmas dinner is served. Poinsettias, holly, fresh flowers, and other Christmas greenery may decorate the table. In many families either the youngest person or the oldest person at the table reads the Christmas story from the Bible before the meal begins. The meal may begin with Bitterballen (small croquettes of finely minced veal or beef in an herb-laced gelatin), cocktail meatballs, Zoute Bolletjes or salted bullets (salty dabs of pastry baked to a fine crunch), Groentensoep (vegetable soup), Erwtensoep (pea soup) sometimes served with little fried meatballs, Mossel-Rijstschotel (and Indonesian-style casserole of mussels over cream-smothered rice), Haringsla (herring salad), and Matjes (salted herring).

The main course may consist of rolled beef, roast hare, roast goose, or roast venison. Turkey is gaining popularity on the Christmas table. Pureed potatoes seasoned with a variety of spices is also a popular item. In many homes the Christmas dinner is served using a table-top grill. Each guest cooks their own bite-sized pieces of meat and vegetables as they eat. Popular Christmas desserts in the Netherlands are Bessensappudding (tart currant pudding), cookies, and chocolates.

The people of the Netherlands also celebrate Second Christmas Day, December 26. This is a day to reach out to friends and do things outside the home. Many people attend performances both professional and amateur at churches, concert halls, and auditoriums. These performances may be choral, instrumental, or theatrical in nature. Churches and schools offer choral presentations and Christmas plays often depicting the story of the Nativity. Families living in and around Rotterdam may attend the Ahoy Kerstcircus (Christmas circus) featuring a live band, aerial acts, animal acts, and clowns. This circus has performed annually since 1917.

A week later another two-day holiday is celebrated. Oude/Niew (Old/New) is celebrated on December 31 and January 1. Most people will send the old year out attending church services then playing games, participating in other activities including ice skating, and eating good food. Around 11:00 P.M. a light supper of assorted delicacies and pastries is served, including appelbollen (cored apples wrapped in a puff pastry with a cinnamon mixture), appelflappen (deep fried, batter-coated apple slices), and oliebollen (crunchy doughnuts loaded with currants and chunks of apple). From 11:00 P.M. until midnight local television stations often feature highlights of the previous year's news programs. At midnight the country breaks into a cacophony of exploding firecrackers, fireworks, pealing church bells, and blaring factory and ship whistles to welcome the new year.

The Christmas season comes to an end on January 6 when Driekoningendag (Three Kings' Day) is celebrated. Children, once again the focus of the holiday, dress up as the three kings, angels, or shepherds and parade through the streets singing Epiphany songs receiving treats as they go from house to house. Back at home an Epiphany cake with a bean or almond baked inside is eaten. The one who finds the bean or almond becomes king for the day.

All Christmas trees are taken down by January 6. Many towns hold giant Christmas tree burnings to mark the end of another Christmas season.

From Sinterklaas to the three kings the Christmas season in the Netherlands is full of fun, family and tradition.

Jesus is the Reason for the season

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