By Ruud Hisgen (Direct Dutch Institute), written for I am Expat
The gloomiest month of the year, December, knows many festive days in the Netherlands. Children look forward to this month because of the presents and the many holidays, but for adults this month can be very strenuous. Ruud Hisgen shares seven tips with you that may help turn your misery into enjoyment.
1. Sinterklaas: Avoid arguments. Do not mention Zwarte Piet
The discussion continues, long after Sinterklaas has returned to Spain. So it’s not too late to learn something about Sinterklaas!
His name day is December 6, but we celebrate his birth as a saint the night before. So it is really on the eve of Sint Nicolaas when he visits millions of Dutch households.
The tradition of celebrating Sint Nicolaas, or Sinterklaas as the Dutch usually call him, goes back to the Middle Ages and has always been a children’s feast.
Since the mid-nineteenth century he has been accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Black Piet) and since the Second World War Zwarte Piet has multiplied himself manifold. When they arrive on the steamship with their holy boss, the Piets swarm out all over the country.
From the 1960s onwards Dutch society has changed into a multicultural society, with over 55 percent of residents in the big cities being non-Dutch nationals.
Many newcomers complain that Zwarte Piet reminds them of a history characterised by racism and slavery and therefore cannot appreciate the Dutch tradition, to put it mildly.
Last year the municipal board of The Hague has put a ban on Zwarte Piet for all primary schools, and many other schools in other cities have followed this example.
Black Piet has now been rebaptised as “Smudge Piet” or “Yellow Piet”. This has infuriated many people because they don’t like the government meddling with their tradition.
So whatever you do, to avoid arguments and heated discussions during Sinterklaas, do not mention Zwarte Piet!
2. Sinterklaas: Be a poet. There’s a Sinterklaasdichter in all of us
Sinterklaas Eve is not a national holiday although many people go home a few hours earlier. The feast is mainly for young children who believe in the existence of the generous present giver.
Yet, when the kids have gone to bed, adults have their own celebration. After drinking lots of Dutch courage (also known as alcohol) they give each other small presents usually wrapped in a surprise package with an anonymous vitriolic poem.
Named Sinterklaasgedichten (Sinterklaas poems), these sneering sonnets are characterised by bad metre and even worse rhyme. An example would go something along the lines of:
“Hier mijn beste vrind
een presentje van de Sint.”
If you would like to be part of an authentic Dutch event, be adventurous and join a Dutch Sinterklaasfeestje, write a poem and experience venomous fun!
3. Kaarsjesavond: Find gezelligheid. Go where the kaarsjes are
December away from the homeliness of your relatives and close friends can be a very lonely and miserable month.
So how to alleviate the pain? Simple, ask your friends or colleagues to come along and visit one or two Dutch kaarsjesavonden (candle nights).
It was the city of Gouda (city of cheese, stroopwafels and candles) that started the tradition: “Gouda bij Kaarslicht”. Another city, Voorburg, has its kaarsjesavond on Christmas eve.
Many other cities organise these events with carols, hot chocolate, a live nativity scene and suchlike. Check which cities near you are hosting one of these events by googling kaarslicht, kaarsjesavond or lichtjesavond and the name of the city.
4. Kerstmis: Restrain yourself, Christmas dinners always end in uitbuiken
Uitbuiken is a peculiar Dutch word, which has no equivalent in English – to my knowledge. The dictionary translates it as “let your food digest comfortably”, but the lexicographer who wrote this apparently does not know how painful and sickening this process can be.
For whatever reason, many people eat and drink too much at Christmas. Each year they say they won’t do it, and each year their intentions go to waste.
So uitbuiken is the painful but necessary process of recuperation after you have eaten and drunk too much for comfort, usually in a supine position, with hands folded over the unwanted bulge in your belly.
5. Oudjaar: Watch the oudejaars-conference. Laugh til the end of the year
How do the Dutchies spend New Year’s Eve? Usually at home. They play games and late at night they watch the oudejaarsconference, or New Year’s Eve show.
In 1954 these shows were started on the radio by Dutch comedian Wim Kan (1911-1983). He was famous for his political satires. From 1973 Kan did these shows on television with great success and ratings as high as 74 percent!
After his death many others succeeded him. These shows are excellent if you’re an advanced student of Dutch, but rather difficult to follow if you’re a beginner. Try to make sense of them.
6. Oud en Nieuw: Make love not war. The Dutch go berserk with vuurwerk
Each year one in five Dutchies buys fireworks (21 percent in 2014), spending a total of roughly 65 million euros annually. Damage to private homes and cars totals about 13 million euros, and lots of children and adults are hurt.
So no wonder that over half of the population is in favour of a ban on fireworks. The Hague has found a solution. They’re organising a fireworks show in the city centre at midnight. This is a hopeful prospect, but until a total ban is in place, watch where you go!
7. Nieuwjaar: Take heed. December food, drink and worries cause katers
Gelukkig nieuwjaar (Happy New Year) is on everybody’s lips but many Dutch people feel down.
The streets are littered with the remnants of fires and fireworks, and fridges are full with left-overs.
There’s no medicine that will help you overcome your kater (hangover). Time and settling into your usual routine are the best healers.
Forewarned is forearmed
Hopefully this guide has provided some valuable advice for surviving the celebration madness that can occur in December. Now you know which activities to avoid – or pursue – we wish you a relaxed and enjoyable Dutch holiday season!