Dutch Christmas Traditions

Dutch Christmas Traditions
By Bernardine van Kessel
December 15, 2020

We asked community leaders of various ethnic heritages to share some holiday traditions of their culture. Bernardine van Kessel said "In the Netherlands, Christmas is actually a two-day religious family holiday celebrating the birth of Christ on Dec. 25 & 26. Those that no longer adhere to any of the Christian faiths in Holland, still celebrate Christmas as a time to reflect and to enjoy time with family and friends sharing elaborate dinners, special Christmas time delicacies and drinking wine and other specialty drinks.

Although it is becoming more of a tradition to give presents on First Christmas Day (Dec. 25), traditionally, presents are only given on Dec. 5 during the separate and unrelated fest of Sinterklaas or St. Nicolaas.

The Feast of Saint Nicholas painting by Dutch master Jan Steen

The Feast of Saint Nicholas painting by
Dutch master Jan Steen (1665-1668)

The Dutch fest of Sinter-klaas, also called "St. Nicolaas", is actually the foundation of the American, and now global, "Santa Claus" figure.

1850 illustration of Saint Nicolas with his servant Black Pete/Zwarte Piet

1850 illustration of Saint Nicolas with his servant Zwarte Piet/Black Pete

Back in the 17th century, early Dutch settlers in the New Netherland colony of the Dutch Republic in the United States (roughly present-day New York, New Jersey and parts of CT, MA, RI) had brought along their Sinterklaas celebration with gift-giving and poems on December 5. According to the Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas, who is a tall, bearded bishop, rides a white horse and has Black Pieten to help him with all the gifts for the children which are traditionally brought into the houses via the chimney where the kids set their shoes.

The Dutch colonists in America kept the tradition of Sinterklaas alive and after a while the English colonists adopted the legend as well. It is believed that the English-speaking children got as excited as the Dutch children and pronounced the Dutch "Sinterklaas" so fast it started to sound like "Santa Claus." Saint Nicolas is also the patron Saint of New York.

Until 1800, the Santa was pictured in the United States as a tall, skinny and stately man dressed in bishop's robes and riding on a white horse. This changed in 1809 when in Washington Irving's book Knickerbocker's History of New York, the author described Santa as a chubby and pleasant man dressed in trousers and wearing a wide-brimmed hat.

In 1823, a New York newspaper published the poem "Twas the night before Christmas." In the poem, the author described Santa as a chubby and jolly person with twinkling eyes and a red nose dressed in a red suit with white-fur trimmings. He traveled through the sky in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer and delivered the presents on Christmas Eve.

1881 illustration by Thomas Nast who, along with Clement Clarke Moore's 1823 poem

1881 illustration by Thomas Nast who, along with Clement Clarke Moore's 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas", helped to create the modern image of Santa Claus.

Thomas Nast, an American cartoonist with Harpers Weekly gave Santa a beard in a series of strips that were published in 1863 to 1886. However, the final stage in the evolution of the modern Santa Claus was brought about by Coca-Cola when they launched an advertising campaign in the 1930s with Santa Claus as a cheery, chubby fellow that millions of people throughout the western world know today. But yet, they also call him "St Nick", harking back to the days of the old Dutch settlers of New Netherland.

Personally, I always enjoy the time before Christmas, the Advent, very much. Decorating the house and Christmas tree, visiting the Christmas markets and seeing all the preparations for the festive days are special.

Dutch Strooigoed

Dutch Strooigoed - a mixture of confectionery that is often strewn around rooms during Sinterklaas celebrations, for children to pick up. The main ingredient is typically kruidnoten.

The Christmas markets are inviting and fun, providing a sense of togetherness amongst the people.


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