A brief survey of Dutch Christmas traditions

A brief survey of Dutch Christmas traditions

Although many Christmas traditions are common to more than one country, and others are widely known, each country has its own variations. Here are some explanations of a few particular elements of a Dutch Christmas.

Christmas trees

Kerstbomen (Christmas trees), known the rest of the year as pine trees, take up residence in living rooms all over the Netherlands, pushing aside the usual tables and cabinets.

Then they are hung with balls, usually made of plastic but sometimes glass or ceramic, encircled with tinsel or decorative chains and topped by a piek, which may be a star or spike with balls.

Why pine trees? One theory is that it was an old Germanic tradition to celebrate mid-winter and the shortest day of the year.

Pine trees are always green, and thus a symbol for fertility, while they were often lit with candles to encourage the sun to return its warmth to the earth. After Christmas, the trees were burned for heat.

Trees were not welcome in churches for a long time, as according to earlier religious tradition they played no part in a Christian Christmas. The star on top, however, is a Christian addition, symbolising the star that lead the Magi to Jesus.

One important thing to remember is to take down the tree before Epiphany (January 6), as otherwise you might be in for some bad luck.

Second Christmas Day

Tweede Kerstdag, December 26, is a common holiday addition in Europe and in some British Commonwealth countries, as well as being traditional in the Netherlands.

The reason why? There are several theories, one being that it was the tradition in many places that, as servants had to work on Christmas Day, they were permitted to have the next day free to visit their families.

The name "Boxing Day" came to be used in the United Kingdom, as - although the etymology is unclear - it may have something to do with gifts being placed in a box to be given to the poor, or boxes of gifts and food for servants to take home.

Dutch people commonly use this day to eat the leftovers, visit their in-laws or take a wander through one of the many, often very large, woonboulevards (furniture shopping centres) across the Netherlands.

Christmas box

While the Dutch don’t refer to the day after Christmas as Boxing Day, they do retain the tradition of the Christmas box or package (kerstpakket).

The tradition evolved here (as it did in the UK), from a gift of food for farm workers to take home to their families after Christmas, to an annual gift for tradesmen.

Now, workers in the Netherlands still receive Christmas presents from their company, and often it is a food basket.

Nativity scenes

Kerststallen are very popular in the Netherlands, appearing as displays in windows or as live scenes in markets and shopping centres.

The latter can be quite impressive: not just real people playing Mary, Joseph and the Magi, but also live animals, which may include the common sheep, goats or donkeys, and occasionally even camels.

Father Christmas

The Dutch version of the happy fatherly Christmas gift-giver is the well-known Sinterklaas, who spreads his largesse to children on the evening of December 5. He is based on St. Nicholas, the 4th-century bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey.

The British version, Father Christmas, developed more from the tradition of the adult celebrations of Christmas, (the good cheer element, if you will), but from the 19th century on has gradually merged with the gift-giving idea of Sinterklaas.

The American version, Santa Claus, came about (in one theory) from Dutch immigrants in the early 17th century. The name changed over the centuries, as did the image of a tall, thin man in the robes of an Eastern bishop, to a chubby, red-faced man in a red suit.

Whether you hold to these traditions, or enjoy entirely different ones, one thing that is universal among all places that celebrate Christmas is for people to wish each other a happy one.

Merry Christmas!

Alexandra Gowling


Alexandra Gowling

Alexandra is an Australian citizen and an experienced expat, having spent (quite a bit of) time in Asia before coming to the Netherlands a year ago. She enjoys writing, reading...

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