Us Europeans

Christmas 2007

The Hague, NL (View on map)

In many European countries, the celebration of Christmas is spread out over two days. Some countries choose to include Christmas Eve (24 December) or Boxing Day (26 December). The Netherlands has some midway alternative. Read on and learn more about this year`s Christmas trends in The Netherlands.

24 December is not much different from an ordinary day. It is certainly not a national holiday. Since only a Monday separates Christmas from the weekend this year, many people have taken a day off work today. If any Christmas activities are organised, these are often restricted to the evening hours. The real Christmas is spread out over First Christmas Day (25) and Second Christmas Day (26 December).

Religion
In past times, Christmas used to be celebrated in The Netherlands as a religious event. Traditionally, it has never had a tight relation with the return of the light, like in Scandinavia, or with material generosity, like in Anglo-Saxon countries. Present-day Dutch Christmas, for many people, lost its religious connotation. It has become a celebration concentrated around food and socialisation. The latter, provided that both company and setting are pleasant, is referred to as gezelligheid, which comes in forced and relaxed variants.

Until the 1960s, Dutch churches, protestant and catholic, attracted a huge audience even on regular Sundays. Many people would not dare to miss the Mass on Christmas Eve. Today`s reality is different: much fewer people attend mass throughout the year, which has caused many churches to close down. Christmas Eve is one of the few exceptions of the ontkerkelijking, (dechurchisation) of The Netherlands. Many people who do not spend one single Sunday morning in church throughout the year will still make an effort to attend on Christmas Eve. Those who don`t are either unreligious or claim they would find themselves hypocritical, not attending church throughout the year, then pretending to be very dedicated Christians during Christmas. Preferred alternative: organise something with friends on Christmas Eve and sleep until late on First and Second Christmas Day.

Freek (28) is inviting sixteen friends to his place for a collective dinner on Christmas Eve. `Every couple will bring a course of the meal and we prepared Christmas poems that the cooks will read out when presenting their dish. My girlfriend and I have been organising this Christmas Dinner for a few years now and it`s great fun. We`ll also exchange presents: everybody bought one present for the person they were assigned through the lots we drew on an internet website.`

Friends and family
Many Dutch celebrate Christmas within the family circle, especially First Christmas Days. 25 December is the perfect day for parents to gather their offspring, in-law or out-of-law, add some uncles and aunts and have a meal together. Meike (23) is not too happy about that: `We first need to cross the whole country to see our family and there`s often this tense atmosphere of keeping the ambiance right. And no drinking allowed, because we are driving the whole way back afterwards.`

Many people are quick to relate Christmas to social pressure. Some potentially troubling factors include: the stress of organising a gathering of several people, possible tensions between different members of the family, the subject of who is invited and who is not, relations, boyfriends, girlfriends, and many more.

Mark (26) also mentions the fixed Christmas agenda as a nuisance. `TV programs are the same every year: Anni, The Sound of Music and the sweet-soft Christmas special of the TV program All you need is love that unites couples so they can celebrate Christmas together. I`m not religious and I lost both my parents when I was younger, so I do not feel very attached to the Christmas ideals. I will celebrate Christmas with my grandmother, sister and some other family members but I would certainly not have showed up if one other aunt had been present as well. Fortunately, I knew in advance that she will not be there. We`re having our dinner on Second Christmas Day, because I will work on the First. It`s paid 250% and I can perfectly use that money for my upcoming trips to Argentina and Spain.`

Presents
Celebrating Christmas with presents is a trend that only recently gained ground in The Netherlands. Sinterklaas, Saint Nicholas Eve, on 5 December, used to be a more suitable occasion to buy and receive presents. Quite some people are concerned that American Santa, in their eyes a symbol of capitalism, is hi-jacking the unmaterialistic nature of Christian Christmas. Still, the amount of money spent on Christmas presents is increasing by the year.

The distribution of Christmas presents is done in as many different ways as there are groups of friends celebrating. Some buy presents for everybody who joins the celebration, some buy for one person in the group and some decide on their own whom to by a present for. Some buy anonymously, some without knowing who will end up going home with the present. The most logical location to display the presents is under the Christmas tree. A card or dice game usually decides who has right to a present and in which order the packs are unwrapped.

Food
Much more than presents and church visit, the atmosphere of Christmas is set by Christmas meals. Most of the Dutch are not used to spending much time around the table, which means that Christmas dinners often put people`s patience to the test. Hence the result of a newspaper survey that revealed the culinary preferences for this year`s Christmas: exclusive but easy-to-prepare. The same survey showed that Christmas meals are prescribed by Allerhande, a culinary magazine edited by supermarket chain Albert Heyn.

Unlike other countries, The Netherlands does not have typical food that is traditionally connected with Christmas. If there is one, it`s a style rather than an actual dish: Gourmetting. Gourmet involves a wide choice of small, raw ingredients presented on the dinner table. A heating plate in the middle then serves people to prepare their own meat or vegetables. In this way, people are kept busy and it saves the host the work of preparing different, potentially complicated, dishes: a typical Dutch win-win situation.

Linda (25, photo) is one of the many people who will sit around the table with her family to prepare their own meal in small portions. Linda says she does not suffer from Christmas pressure. She enjoys the time with her family. `Everything can be discussed around the Christmas table, there are no forbidden subjects and the TV will be switched off, we will just be having a good time`, she says.

Non-official Christmas activities
As written above, Second Day of Christmas is another public holiday: another day to have a lie-in and to do what did not fit into the First Christmas Day. Linda will go see somebody special whom she hasn`t know for a long time yet. She explains: `I don`t know what the program is, but it will be a nice day. Then in the evening, I`ll go into town with some friends for a drink, to officially end this year`s Christmas.` Many people use their days off work to practice sports. Streets, parks and fields are usually quite empty at Christmas, especially in the morning. Arnoud (28) will be joining his friends to play football on the morning of First Christmas Day. In the evening, he will be having dinner with his family and exchanging presents. On Second Christmas Day, he will meet up with two of his best friends. They will all prepare there food in small pieces and around the table. Arnoud is another Gourmet fan.

Summarising Dutch Christmas, there`s very little tradition left, a lot of food and socialising, some sports, some presents but without overdoing, and a fair amount of sleeping to connect it all.

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Comments

  1. Bruno, this is just to say that I enjoy very much reading your recent stories about traditions in the Netherlands.

    Living with a Flemish girl since some years I see several similarities between The Netherlands and dutch-speaking Belgium, but also quite some differences.

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