Special Occasions and Holidays in the Netherlands
There is no better way of engaging with a new culture than by attending their national celebrations. After all, they often give you a glimpse of the traditions that make up that culture. Here’s a list of the most important holidays in the Netherlands:
New Year’s Day (Nieuwjaarsdag)
The Dutch follow the Gregorian calendar. Therefore, every year on the evening of the 31st of December, everyone in the Netherlands awaits the start of a new year.
To welcome the upcoming year, Dutchies organise parties at home or attend public ones, just like the rest of the world.
Regardless of the place one chooses to greet the New Year, at midnight, it is a must to admire the firework shows or bonfires, clink glasses of champagne and wish all the loved ones a ‘Gelukkig Nieuwjaar’ (Happy New Year).
A unique way of celebrating the New Year’s Day in the Netherlands is the so-called ‘New Year’s Dive’. Participants of this event are supposed to bravely dive into the freezing cold waters of the North Sea, lakes or canals, and even swim for a bit.
If you want to begin the year with a kick for your cardio routine and take part in the official ‘New Year’s Dive’, you need to register on the morning of the 1st of January at one of the beaches where this event will be held.
For that, you usually have to pay a couple of euros. In exchange, you will receive a bright orange hat and souvenirs to remember this day.
However, if you prefer to enjoy the warmth of your fluffy blanket indoors rather than engaging in such bold actions, you can watch others doing it. This is because the ‘New Year’s Dive’ is often broadcasted on national TV.
Even if in the last couple of years it may seem as if the number of people who identify themselves as Christian is decreasing, Easter remains an important celebration in the Netherlands.
Easter is when Jesus’ resurrection is celebrated. Traditionally, Christians attend services on the Sunday of Easter, which is the first day of this special occasion. While Easter lasts for three days, only the first two are off-days.
Easter is celebrated on a different day every year, depending on the lunar phase. That being said, it will always take place on a Sunday between the 22nd of March and 25th of April.
Besides painting boiled eggs or chocolate eggs, a common practice on Easter among Dutch Christians is the ‘extended breakfast’, also known as ‘brunch’ with family and friends on Easter Sunday or Monday.
Typical dishes in a hearty Dutch Easter Brunch include
- boiled, poached or fried eggs;
- Paasstol (a rich loaf of bread filled with raisins, nuts and marzipan);
- butter made into the shape of a lamb;
- butter flavoured with herbs;
- chocolate in the shape of an egg or hare;
- lamb (it symbolises the death and resurrection of Jesus).
If you plan to celebrate Easter following Dutch traditions, we recommend you to organise with your friends a similar brunch. Sharing food is always great to bond with people.
You could also host your own ‘Easter Hunt’ with a ‘grown-up’ twist to it by turning the grand prize into a bottle of your preferred alcoholic beverage.
Another way in which you could celebrate Easter is to participate in one of the Easter bonfires held annually in Drenthe, Groningen, Overijssel, Twente, Friesland and Gelderland.
You could also visit Easter markets, or attend Easter events at amusement parks.
While we’re talking about religious holidays, Hemelvaartsdag (Ascension Day) and Pinksteren (White Sunday) are also recognised as holidays in the Netherlands.
Hemelvaartsdag falls on the 40th day after Easter while Pinksteren is the 49th day after Easter.
King’s Day (Koningsdag)
Better known to the locals as ‘Koningsdag’, King’s Day, as its self-explanatory name suggests, is a celebration dedicated to the birthday of King Willem-Alexander, the official ruler of the Netherlands.
Since 2014, every year on the 27th of April the Dutch enjoy a day off to celebrate the King’s birthday.
Everyone dresses in orange from head-to-toe, proudly wearing the colour of the Dutch royal family. People drink beer and orange bitters and sing or chant patriotic songs and slogans.
The highlight of the day is perhaps the tour the King and the Dutch royal family makes to different cities of the Netherlands each year.
If you feel like just joining the orange frenzy is not enough for you to enjoy King’s Day to the fullest, you can visit one of the flea markets in true Dutch spirit!
Yes, you read that right, Dutch people organise flea markets on King’s Day as a way to dispose of any gadgets, pieces of furniture and other pre-loved items.
The best thing is that everyone in the Netherlands can sell anything from 06:00 to 20:00 without a trading licence on King’s Day.
Thus, if you live for finding bargains or plan to declutter your room, King’s Day is a day that you’d want to mark down on your calendar.
Remembrance Day & Liberation Day
For the Dutch, Remembrance Day (Dodenherdenking) and Liberation Day (Bevrijdingsdag) are important dates to acknowledge. They fall on the 4th and 5th of May each year.
Each year at 20:00 on Remembrance Day, everyone in the Netherlands pays homage to those whose lives were sacrificed during World War II in two minutes of silence.
Prior to that, commemoration ceremonies are held across the country where people, dressed in dark colours, gather to honour the memory of WWII victims. The national flag is also hung at half-mast as a sign of mourning.
On the next day, Liberation Day is celebrated to mark the end of the Nazi occupation during WWII. Traditionally, the celebration begins at midnight on the 4th of May with the ignition of the Liberal Flame in Wageningen, where the capitulation documents were signed 75 years ago.
Liberation festivals are held all over the country, many featuring music events such as live performances from Dutch bands, DJs and more. The best part is that most, if not all of these festivals are free-of-charge!
Military parades, theatre performances, street dinners and other local celebrations are also great ways to get involved in the celebration of Liberation Day. For the Dutch, it is a fun-filled day to celebrate freedom and democracy.
Sinterklaas (or Saint Nicholas in English) is known to Dutch children as a kind old man with a bright red cape who comes to the Netherlands on the 5th of December each year, accompanied by his servant ‘Zwarte Piet’, to leave presents in the boots of well-behaved children.
As an international student who might be used to Christmas being the main holiday in December, you may feel slightly overwhelmed by the enthusiasm Dutch people have for Sinterklaas.
It is not only children who enjoy this celebration. Regardless of age, everyone exchanges gifts on the 5th of December. Presents are usually wrapped elaborately to make guessing difficult and are often accompanied by humorous poems dedicated to the recipient.
Don’t forget to try the delicious Dutch candies traditionally eaten on Sinterklaas! If you’re unsure what to try first, we recommend you to search in the supermarkets for:
- Pepernoten (chewy, cookie-like treats);
- Kruidnoten (similar to pepernoten but made with speculaas herbs);
- Speculaas (a type of biscuit made with special speculaas herbs);
- Chocoladeletter (alphabet-shaped chocolate).
- Suikermuizen (sugary inside with a chocolate coating)
- Schuimpjes (literal solid sugar, very chewy and sweet)
However, it is important to note that in recent years, the character of Zwarte Piet (literally translated into Black Pete) has become a subject of controversy.
It is not uncommon to see Dutch people dressing up as Zwarte Piet at a Sinterklaas parade by painting their faces black, wearing curly wigs and applying bright red lipstick.
As you can imagine, this tradition is upsetting for many people-of-colour, especially black people.
Fortunately, awareness on this matter has increased over the years with more and more people protesting against the racist representation of Piet as Sinterklaas’ black slave. Many parade-goers now paint their faces in fun colours instead of black to represent Piet.
In many countries, Christmas is the most important holiday of the year. It is the time of the year when family and friends reunite after a busy year to reconnect, enjoy dinner, and exchange gifts.
While Christmas preparations (e.g. decoration, gift-shopping etc.) in many countries begin as early as in October, it is considered rude and against tradition to start preparing for Christmas before Sinterklaas in the Netherlands.
Another thing about Christmas in the Netherlands that may shock you is that for Dutch people, the 24th of December is regarded as a typical, working day. It is only on the 25th and 26th of December when people visit each other and exchange gifts.
For some reason, Christmas is also the more popular holiday for giving presents, compared to Sinterklaas.
Interestingly, when it comes to Christmas meals, Dutch people do not have intricate dishes for this celebration.
A typical Dutch Christmas dinner can include:
- Kerststol (Dutch Christmas bread);
- Oliebollen (Traditional Dutch doughnuts),
- Jan Hagel cookies (Cinnamon almond cookies);
- Advocaat (a creamy yellow liqueur made from egg yolks, sugar, brandy and vanilla).
There may not be Christmas turkey on the dining table, but the warmth of the spices in most of these treats will leave you feeling extra bubbly on this magical special occasion.