In the Netherlands, Saint Nicolas comes bearing gifts on December 5th, Sinterklaasavond, or Saint Nicolas’s Eve. December 6th is the feast of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children. Saint Nicolas arrives by steamboat from Spain with his helper Zwarte Piet. Saint Nicolas rides a white horse and there is a parade from the dock in Amsterdam to the Palace where Saint Nicolas asks the princes and princesses if they have behaved well through the year. If they’ve been good, the children of the royal family receive presents.
Children all over the Netherlands leave their shoes out the night before Saint Nicolas’s Eve and wake to find that he has left treats for them in exchange for hay or carrots for his horses. In addition to the Saint Nicolas traditions, families also give gifts to one another on Sinterklaasavond but the identity of the gift giver is a secret. The giver tries to surprise the receiver by using rhymes and riddles that often poke fun at the receiver. Small gifts can be wrapped in big boxes and clues might be left around the house for children to follow to find a sack of presents left by Saint Nicolas.
The Netherlands is probably the source of our Santa Claus, since Dutch settlers brought Sinterklaas with them to America. As you study Christmas Around the World, create a chart of gift bringers and their helpers. Some of the information you might choose to capture:
- the name of the gift bringer, such as Santa Claus
- the name of any helpers, such as Santa’s elves
- the animals, such as reindeer, that help or travel with the gift bringer
- where the gift bringer comes from — Santa Claus comes from the North Pole
- the method of transportation used
- whether the gift bringer is male or female
- when the gifts are brought
- where the gifts are placed
- what kids leave for the gift bringer — in the U.S., milk and cookies are often left for Santa
Once you’ve completed the chart, sort all the gift bringers into groups: you’ll find that the most common are some version of Saint Nicholas or Father Christmas, but there are many variations.
Christmas itself is a more quiet holiday in the Netherlands, and is known as Kerstfeest. Christmas in the Netherlands mainly revolves around food and family. On Christmas Eve families go to church and return home to a large feast in the early hours of the day, eating traditional Dutch Christmas foods, like kerststol. On Christmas morning, families might go to church again. On Christmas day, families enjoy sitting around the Christmas tree and telling stories to each other or catch up on missed sleep from the night before. December 26th is known as Second Christmas and many families dine out on this day and enjoy large, lavish meals together.
Some traditional Dutch foods include these:
- Kerststol, or Christmas fruit stolen
- Kerstkransjes, or Christmas wreath cookies
- Jan Hagel cookies
- Banketstaaf or banketletters, or almond paste filled pastry logs
- Speculaas, or spice cookies
- Oliebollen, or donuts
- Appelflappen, or apple fritters
Banketletter or letterbanket is the name for a special cookie made in the shape of letters. You can easily find recipes for this treat online, or you can make this simple version:
- Give students small amounts of refrigerated pie crust (the rolled type, not the type in pans) and marzipan (also available in rolls in grocery stores at Christmastime).
- Each student can roll the marzipan into a snake, wrap the pie crust around it, and form the first letter of his or her name. Get help from the kitchen to bake the letterbankets.
- Alternatively, use the Dutch tradition as inspiration for using clay to form letters. If you choose to use Model magic or another self-hardening clay, you can hang the letters on your class Christmas tree.
Twente, a region in east Holland, has another unique tradition for Christmas. Midwinter horns and ox horns are blown at different times, usually on Christmas Eve or every night as a call for residents to attend church after dusk during Advent until the Epiphany in early January. The horns have different sounds created by blowing the horns into wells or by blowing them into the air. Students can learn about how water changes instruments with our Water Drum Lesson Plan. Students can hear the midwinter horn being played here.