Top 10 Dutch traditions

The top 10 Dutch traditions, compiled by the Dutch folk culture centre NCV.

1. Sinterklaas
Sinterklaas is St Nicholas, the patron saint of children, sailors and many others as well. He’s also the precursor of Santa Claus – thanks to Dutch immigrants in the US and Conde Nast.

Every year, about three weeks before December 5, Sinterklaas and his band of helpers arrive in the Netherlands from Spain by steamboat. The arrival (intocht) is shown live on television, the highlights are shown on the news (we kid you not). For the next three weeks Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Piet helpers tour the Netherlands visiting children at school, in the creche, you name it. Then on December 5, if you are lucky, he will visit you at home with his big book and tell you whether you have been good or bad. Then you will get presents.

Now, this is liberal Holland and Zwarte Piet is in no way meant to be insulting to black people, even though he is a white person wearing black make-up and a curly wig.  Nor is he a slave. Oh no. Zwarte Piet is part of Dutch culture and its all those foreigners trying to be politically correct and get rid of honest Dutch traditions.

The Dutch will tell you children love Piet and he gets his black face from climbing down the chimney. If you really want to make them angry, you can point out Piet first appeared as an anonymous Moorish page in a book written in 1850.  The name came later.

No chimneys here

No chimneys here

(The annual debate about Zwarte Piet is another Dutch tradition but we’ll go into that later.)

2. Putting up a Christmas tree
The Dutch love their Christmas trees. From October onwards, every garden centre turns at least half its floor space over to a giant display of Christmas tat – including tree decorations of every hue and material. Dutch trees always have a peak.

The Dutch have been fighting a battle against the encroachment on Dutch traditions by Father Christmas or Santa Claus.  Shopkeepers, however, love the idea of yet more presents so have been quick to adopt the Anglo-American interloper as well.

There is, however, an unwritten rule that Christmas trees themselves don’t go on sale until after the Sinterklaas celebrations on December 5.

3. The Queen’s Day market
April 30 is Koninginnedag (Queen’s Day) and was the birthday of Queen Beatrix’s mother, Juliana. When Beatrix succeeded her mother in 1980, she decided to keep the celebrations on the same day, which is a public holiday. She also scrapped the formal file-past at Soestdijk palace and introduced ‘meet and greet’ visits instead.

Traditionally, citizens do not need a permit to sell goods on the street on Queen’s Day which is why the streets turn into a giant flea market. 2013 will be the last one for some time. New king Willem-Alexander has decided to rename it Koningsdag and shift it forward three days to his birthday on April 27.

4 .Eating oliebollen – deep-fried donuts – on New Year’s Eve
One habit which foreigners seem to be very quick to adopt. Well, they are bloody good.

5 Painting Easter eggs
See also seven holidays in three months

6. Carnaval
The roots of carnaval stem from the Catholic period preceding Lent, the ‘feast’ before the ‘fast’. The carnival festivities – complete with lavishly decorated floats, oompah-oompah music and LOTS of beer – hit the streets in February. And although traditionally a festivity for the Catholic south, the party is slowly spreading northwards. Think Mardi Gras or Rio – but then without the naked flesh and the sun.

A boy and a girl

Congratulations, its a boy and a girl

7. Beschuit met muisjes
You may be puzzled at work when someone – usually a man – comes round carrying a tray covered with crispbakes covered in blue or pink aniseed-flavoured sprinkles, known as muisjes (little mice). This is to celebrate the fact they have had a baby. Apparently, the aniseed is supposed to stimulate lactation so its a bit odd to feed them to your co-workers, and if, like many foreigners, you can’t stand them, you will end up with a desk drawer full.  Children often eat gestampte muisjes (mashed little mice) on crispbakes for breakfast. Weird.

8. Blowing out birthday cake candles
See also five rules for dealing with Dutch birthdays

9. Singing Sint Maarten songs on November 11
Sint Maarten or Martinus, bishop of the French city of Tours some 1,600 years ago, is remembered every year in the Netherlands with a festival reminiscent of Halloween. Once a Catholic celebration, Saint Maarten has been revived in recent years as part of a concerted effort to bring back Dutch traditions. At dusk on November 11 (the day the Saint officially died), children go from house to house carrying lanterns and singing songs in return for sweets. Every year there are stories in the newspapers about children who have had their sweets stolen from them.


Can it get any more Dutch?

10. Eating herring
Calling raw herring Dutch sushi won’t fool anyone. You cannot get more Dutch than eating one – especially when the Hollandse Nieuwe hit the shops. The start of the new herring season is always a major media circus. Vlaggetjesdag – the day of the little flags – is supposed to hark back to times of yore when the herring fleet came home. Now it is a nice excuse for even more front page pictures, this time of Scheveningen and people in national dress. Forget the fact the fish were caught by massive trawlers and have been in freezers for weeks. This is why fishmongers advertise their supplies as being ‘fresh from the knife’.

12 thoughts on “Top 10 Dutch traditions

  1. AC Hegeman

    typo? “Every year about three weeks before December 5” is probably meant to be “three weeks before December 25”

  2. WA

    Willem-Alexander’s birthday is on the 27th, so that will normally be Koningsdag. Unless that’s on a Sunday, like in 2014, in that case it will be celebrated on the 26th.

  3. Anglea

    St. M is not celebrated her in Noord Brabant…pity sounds like fun and my Daughter shares her bithday on 11 November.

    1. Claudia

      Oh yes it is! I’m from Brabant (Veldhoven) and have celebrated it since I was a kid, and the kids in the neighbourhood still celebrate it 🙂

  4. loonyandrea

    Carnaval is only celebrated in the South, as it is a Catholic tradition and not a Protestant one. Every year lots of drunk and annoying people from up North come to the South to ruin it, because they don’t know how to properly celebrate and have a good time without fighting.
    Sint Maarten is not celebrated in most of the South, but Driekoningen (3kings on the 6th of January is)

    1. Marcel van Zijderveld

      Fully agree Tim. An oliebol is an oliebol and that’s it!! We love them and we still make them every year even though we live in Dubai for the last 10 years. But tradition stays on, even if we go camping the last week of December in the desert it is our special treat to take the oliebollen with us 🙂


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