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Christmas in the Netherlands

Celebrating Sinterklaas, sampling speculaas & savouring some of Europe’s best Christmas markets

amsterdam-canal-lights
© PEP photo - Licence

If you’re planning a festive getaway for the end of year, then the Netherlands has plenty of Christmas spirit to share. While it's not a country traditionally associated with Christmas, the Netherlands is full of charm and festive cheer over December. So if you’re looking to experience some of northern Europe’s best Christmas markets and festive treats— not to mention some of its most intriguing festive customs —then a trip to this country is for you. 

To help you get to grips with Dutch Christmas customs, learn about Sint-Nicolaas and Zwarte Piet, and plan your Christmas getaway to one of the continent’s most delightful countries, we’ve put together this guide to Christmas in the Netherlands. 

When is Christmas celebrated in the Netherlands?

In the Netherlands, Christmas is celebrated on 25th December. Just as in the UK, the Dutch traditionally spend the day eating good food surrounded by their family. However, this is where most of the similarities end. 

In the Netherlands, Christmas is split over two days: Kerstdag — the 25th — and Tweede Kerstdag (the Second Day of Christmas) — the 26th. It is customary for a Dutch family to spend the first day with one side of their family and the second with the other. 

Another major difference is that the Dutch don’t exchange gifts on Christmas Day. Instead, they do so earlier in December on Sinterklaas Dag — Saint Nicholas’s Day. 

What is Sinterklaas Dag?

sinterklaas-dag-shoes

The Dutch festive season, which is known as Sinterklaas, begins on Advent Sunday — the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Families in the Netherlands celebrate this Christian tradition, which anticipates the coming of Christ, with an advent wreath. This wreath features four red or yellow candles, one of which is lit on each of advent’s four Sundays. 

Sinterklaas Dag, which falls on 6th December, is the day when Dutch families exchange gifts with one another, although children from the northern Netherlands get to open their gifts on Sinterklaasavond, the 5th. 

In the north of the country, families will usually ask a neighbour to knock on their door and leave a sack full of gifts for them to find. The children are told this was left by Sint-Nicolaas's helper, Zwarte Piet. Once the presents have arrived, the family will take it in turns to open their gifts from Sint-Nicolaas. 

The Dutch call their Sinterklaas presents ‘surprises’, and they are often creatively wrapped in order to conceal their contents. For example, a gift may be wrapped in a series of progressively smaller boxes or hidden in a location that can only be found by following a series of clues. It is also customary for Sinterklaas surprises to be accompanied by a short, humorous poem poking fun at the receiver, often by teasing them for a well-known bad habit. 

In the southern Netherlands, children have to wait until the morning of Sinterklaas Dag to receive their gifts. On the night of Sinterklaas Eve, they fill their shoes with carrots and sugar cubes for Sint-Nicolaas's trusty stead, Amerigo, alongside a bottle of beer for Zwarte Piet and a cup of coffee for Sint-Nicolaas. When they wake up, the shoes are overflowing with gifts left by Sint-Nicolaas, and nowadays larger presents are wrapped up and left beside the shoes.

The tradition of leaving your shoes out for Sint-Nicolaas comes from the most famous story about the saint. It is believed Nicolaas came from an affluent part of the population, and that he received a substantial inheritance from his parents when they died. 

One day, Nicolaas heard about a shoemaker who could not afford the dowry to have his three daughters married. Taking pity on them, he snuck to the family’s house under the cover of darkness and threw a purse full of gold coins through their open window. It is said that the purse landed in one of the oldest daughter’s shoes — that's why Dutch children leave their shoes out on the eve of St Nicholas’s Day and Sint-Nicolaas fills them with gifts.   

Who is Sint-Nicolaas?

sinterklaas
© Michell Zappa - Licence

Sint-Nicolaas is a mythical figure based on the patron saint of children, Saint Nicholas. He is also referred to as Sinterklaas, De Sint (The Saint), De Goede Sint (The Good Saint), and De Goedheiligman (The Good Holy Man). 

Sint-Nicolaas is thought to be the largest influence on the modern Santa Claus, with the latter coming to prominence in the Americas shortly after the first Dutch immigrants arrived. 

While similar in many ways to Santa Claus, Sint-Nicolaas differs in some major ways. In appearance, he is explicitly religious; his outfit is made up of a red papal gown over a white bishop’s alb, and is completed with a red mitre emblazoned with a gold crucifix. He shares the same long, curly, white beard as Santa Claus, and as a result looks like a cross between Santa Claus and the Pope to the uninitiated. 

The story goes that, for 11 months of the year, Sint-Nicolaas lives in the Spanish capital of Madrid. He arrives from Spain on a steam boat on the first Saturday after 11th November and then travels throughout Holland on a white horse called Amerigo with his servant, Zwarte Piet. 

Each year, Sint-Nicolaas arrives in Holland at a different coastal town; he disembarks his steamboat and parades the streets on his white horse while hundreds of Zwarte Pieten throw confectionary into crowds of children. The event is broadcast on national television and celebrated across the country. 

Who is Zwarte Piet?

zwarte-piet
© Facemepls - Licence

In the Netherlands, Sint-Nicolaas has a companion called Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter in English. This now-controversial figure was introduced to the Dutch St Nicholas Day tradition in the mid-19th century, when he was said to be Sint-Nicolaas's Moorish servant from Spain. Today, his black skin is explained as being a permanent layer of soot that is the result of Piet’s trips down chimneys when delivering presents. 

Sint-Nicolaas is accompanied by several Zwarte Pieten upon his arrival to the Netherlands, and those portraying the character typically put on face paint, red lipstick, hoop earrings, and a wig of curly black hair alongside renaissance attire. Sint-Nicolaas plays an elderly, statesmanlike character in the celebrations, and Zwarte Piet entertains children through mischievous behaviour and distributing traditional sweets such as pepernoten and kruidnoten among the crowds. It is also Piet’s duty to deliver the presents to children who have been good on Sinterklaas Dag. 

Do the Dutch have Santa Claus?

Rather confusingly, some Dutch families have also started celebrated Christmas Day (25th December) and telling their children that Santa Claus brings them presents on this day. However, many Dutch people fiercely oppose this Americanised holiday, and if children do receive gifts on Christmas Day, they're told that they come from their parents. The majority of Dutch families celebrate Sinterklaas and give a much smaller amount of presents on Christmas Day, which is more focussed around visits to extended family. 

Many Dutch people are resistant to the idea of an Americanised Christmas creeping into their culture, and children are often admonished for using the English name for Santa Claus rather than the Dutch, Kerstman. 

Dutch Christmas traditions

christmas-tree

In the build-up to Christmas, Dutch families decorate their homes with Christmas trees, fairy lights, and festive ornaments. Traditionally, these decorations don’t make an appearance until after Sinterklaas Dag, and on the whole, Dutch decorations tend to be quite tasteful, with garish displays frowned upon. 

Dutch Christmas trees are traditionally topped with a star, draped in white fairy lights, and decorated with baubles and kerstkransjes — little biscuits tied to branches with colourful ribbon.

In the days leading up to Christmas, Dutch workers traditionally receive a Christmas hamper from their employer known as a kerstpakket. This usually contains wines and fine food, and it is customary for it to contain at least one tin of chicken ragout. 

In east Holland, Christmas is heralded every day from the first Sunday of Advent to Christmas Eve with the Mid-Winter Hoornblazen (Mid-Winter Horn Blowing). This curious custom is performed each day at dawn in this rural part of the country, where farmers stand over their well and blow a soft, low melody from a large horn carved from the trunk of an elder tree to announce the coming of Christ. The well amplifies the sound and carries it for miles, and when the sound dies out, the next farmer picks it up, so it is carried across the whole of the east of the country.  

Between Sint-Nicolaas’s arrival in the Netherlands and Sinterklaas Dag, Dutch children leave their shoes beside a window or door each night alongside a carrot and a saucer of water for Amerigo. If Sint-Nicolaas passes by and they have been good, he may leave some sweets in their shoes for them to find in the morning.  

New Year’s Eve and Day in the Netherlands

Fireworks

Like most countries around the world, the Dutch mark New Year's Eve (Oud en Nieuw) with a night of partying and celebration. The usually reserved Dutch go all-out with fireworks, which are available to buy from the 29th to the 31st December. 

Oud en Nieuw is also celebrated with huge bonfires in the Netherlands, which are traditionally made up of dead Christmas trees. Each year, the nation turns its attention to two rival Amsterdam teams, Scheveningen and Duindorp, who compete to make the biggest New Year’s Eve bonfire in the Netherlands on Scheveningen’s North Beach. The event, which features two colossal bonfires, draws attention from not only the rest of the Netherlands, but also tourists who flock to the event from around the world. 

In coastal cities across the Netherlands, a New Year’s Day dip into the freezing North Sea is also traditional for those brave enough to endure the temperatures. The New Year’s Day lottery is also a big national event, with approximately 17 million Dutch people buying a ticket each year in the hope of winning the €30 million prize. 

The Dutch festive calendar

To help you plan your festive trip to the Netherlands, here’s a breakdown of all of the key dates. Public holidays are marked with an asterisk, and you may find that attractions and shops are closed on these days:

The first Saturday after November 11th: Arrival of Sint-Nicolaas from Spain

The fourth Sunday before Christmas: Advent, which is celebrated by lighting the first candle on the advent wreath and, in the east, the beginning of the Mid-Winter Hoornblazen

5th December: Sinterklaasavond (open presents in the north)

6th December: Sinterklaas Dag (open presents in the south)

7th December: Traditional day to put Christmas decorations up

24th December: Kerstavond (Christmas Eve)

25th December*: Kerstdag (Christmas Day)

26th December*: Tweede Kerstdag (The Second Day of Christmas)

31st December: Oud en Nieuw (New Year's Eve)

1st January: New Year’s Day — Nieuwjaarsdag (New Year’s Day)

6th January: Traditional day to take Christmas decorations down

Dutch Christmas food and drink

Christmas is one of the best times to visit the Netherlands if for no other reason than the food. More so than perhaps any other country, Holland takes its festive treats very seriously, and while you’re there you’ll be able to satisfy your sweet tooth with a range of delicious biscuits and sweets. 

To help you choose, here’s our pick of the best Dutch food and drink over the festive period. Make your way to a traditional Dutch bakery or a stall in one of the country’s excellent Christmas markets to sample these tasty treats at their best.

Kruidnoten and pepernoten

Kruidnoten
© Martijn van ExelLicence

Kruidnoten, which roughly translates as 'spiced nuts', are little round biscuits that date back to the middle ages, when sailors began importing exotic spices back to Europe from the far east. One of these spices was white pepper, which was said to be a strong aphrodisiac and therefore used in fertility biscuits. These treats were thrown at newlyweds on their wedding day as we now throw rice. 

Kruidnoten were also thrown as part of a traditional pagan sowing feast that was celebrated at the start of December, where they were meant to promote a good harvest and ward off bad spirits. Over time, this festival was replaced by the Saint Nicholas Feast, which eventually became the Sinterklaas celebrated today. The tradition of throwing kruidnoten remained, however, and Zwarte Piet does so to all of the children when he and Sint-Nicolaas disembark from their steamboat. 

Kruidnoten are brittle, crunchy biscuits that are not dissimilar in taste or texture to our own ginger nuts, although they are around half the size. They are heavily spiced with aniseed, cinnamon, white pepper, and ginger. To many Dutch people, they define the taste of the Sinterklaas period. 

You can find kruidnoten — as well as their chocolate-coated cousins, chocolade-kruidnoten — in any supermarket or corner shop in Holland from as early as November. However, for an authentic experience of this popular Sinterklaas treat, get yours fresh from a bakery — or make sure to get to the front of the crowd when Sint-Nicolaas and Zwarte Piet parade through the streets during Sint-Nicolaas’s arrival. 

While pepernoten, which translates as 'pepper nuts', may be similar to kruidnoten in name, they shouldn’t be confused — although they often are, even by the Dutch. In recent years, kruidnoten have even been known to be mistakenly named pepernoten on their packaging, confusing matters further. So how can you be sure you really are getting a pepernoot?

In contrast to kruidnoten, these treats have a chewy texture and a subtle liquorice flavour. They are cube-shaped and are known for being difficult to eat due to the fact they harden over time. However, pick yours up fresh from a Dutch bakery and you’ll find a chewy treat with a surprisingly deep flavour. 

Taai-taai

taai-taai
© Turku Gingerbread - Licence

This curious Sinterklaas biscuit is similar to gingerbread, and is often baked in the shape of a person, commonly Sint-Nicolaas. However, where it differs is in texture — taai means tough, and these biscuits live up to their name. The chewy texture is accompanied by an aromatic and incredibly festive flavour, which is the result of a delicious mix of cinnamon, aniseed, nutmeg, and cloves. 

Alongside his role as the protector of children, Sint-Nicolaas gained a status as a matchmaker after gifting the shoemaker’s daughter the money to cover his three daughters’ dowries. Because of this, it is traditional for Dutch men to present a woman they are interested in marrying with a taai-taai biscuit decorated with symbols referring to the man’s trade in the build-up to Sinterklaas. These biscuits are known as vrijer (which translates as 'lovers'), and if the man returns the next day and the biscuit has been eaten, it means the girl has accepted his proposal — if not, he’ll be best off moving on!

Taai-taai are a traditional gift during Sinterklaas, and they are often intricately decorated with symbolic imagery. Churches are gifted to religious people, hogs to grandfathers, and cats to grandmothers. If you’re not lucky enough to receive a wedding proposal during your visit to the Netherlands, then you can pick up a taai-taai from any Dutch bakery. These are traditionally enjoyed with a hot drink. 

Speculaas

speculaas
© Torsten Maue - Licence

In recent years, speculaas has made the transition from a purely festive delicacy to something that is enjoyed all year round — although may Dutch natives refuse to eat them outside of Sint-Nicolaas’s stay in the Netherlands. They are sometimes known as 'windmill biscuits', as they are often baked in the shape of a windmill outside of the festive period. 

Speculaas are thin, crunchy, caramelised biscuits stamped with a festive image. Their flavour is typical of a Dutch Sinterklaas biscuit, and comes from a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, and white pepper. However, speculaas are distinctive in the fact that they are cooked until they are deliciously caramelised, giving them an incredibly sweet flavour and brittle texture. 

Recently, several varieties of peanut butter–like spread made from crushed speculaas have become popular in the Netherlands. This comes from the Low Countries tradition of taking a speculaas and butter sandwich to work during the Sinterklaas period — by lunch, this filling would develop into a spread-like consistency. This inspired the invention of the spread, which is enjoyed across the country. It comes in smooth and crunchy consistencies, and has a caramelised flavour similar to gingerbread. Pick up a jar from a Dutch supermarket for a taste of this curious take on a Sinterklaas classic. 

Kerstkransjes

kerstkransjes
© WiesLicence

These biscuits are always baked with a hole in the centre so they can be tied to the branch of a Christmas tree with a colourful ribbon. It’s a Dutch tradition to bake them in time for the 6th December, when Sint-Nicolaas has left and the Christmas decorations go up. 

Unlike most other Dutch festive biscuits, kerstkransjes are quite plain, with just a subtle lemon taste. They are traditionally decorated with almonds or glace cherries, and you’ll find them adorning the tree in most Dutch households.  

Kerststol

Kerststol

Kerststol is a dense fruit loaf filled with marzipan and coated in a thick layer of powdered sugar. Traditionally enjoyed at brunch on Christmas Day, the sweet, rich bread is also served to houseguests alongside a cup of coffee or tea, and you can pick up a loaf in any Dutch bakery. 

If you happen to visit the Netherlands over Easter, you’ll see kerststol by another name — paasstol. 

Bishopswijn

Bishopswijn

Bishopswijn, which translates as ‘bishops wine’, is the Dutch equivalent of mulled wine. This hot, spiced wine is the perfect drink for a cold winter’s day, and makes the perfect accompaniment to a trip around one of the Netherlands' Christmas markets. 

The distinctive flavour of bishopswijn comes from a combination of rich red wine sweetened with sugar and flavoured with cinnamon, cloves, and oranges and then heated up. It’s perfect for getting warmed up after a bracing winter’s walk. 

Letterbanket

Letterbanket
© Heather VescentLicence

Letterbanket (aka banketstaven or simply banket) is a marzipan-filled pastry which is baked in the shape of the first letter of the family’s surname. This tradition comes from the ritual of baking a message to be the centrepiece of the Christmas banquet, and now survives as being a single letter. 

Banketstaaf are made from flaky puff pastry and are always dusted with powdered sugar. They can be enjoyed hot or cold, and you’ll find them in bakeries and cafés across the Netherlands during the festive period. 

Alongside the banketstaaf, well-behaved Dutch children can expect to receive at least one chocolate letter in their shoes before Sinterklaas is over. These letters come in the shape of the initial of the child’s first name, and they’re often filled with marzipan. Around 30,000 are sold in the Netherlands each year, and their manufacturers take them very seriously — each letter is a different thickness to ensure they are all an identical weight to ensure no Ilse or Ima ends up jealous of her brother's Maikel or Marten. Pick up a chocolate letter to take back to your loved ones at home for the perfect keepsake from your trip. 

Gourmetten

Gourmetten
© Cristiano BettaLicence

Unlike here in the UK, there is no traditional menu for Christmas dinner. The only staple is the gourmetten pans — individual hot plates on which each diner grills their own food from a selection of meats, vegetables, and pancake batter. 

This tradition was popularised in the 1970s by Dutch celebrity chefs Ton Boer and Huub Oudshoorn, who were contracted by the Dutch meat industry to tour the country singing the praises of gourmetten in an attempt to boost flagging meat sales. The campaign was successful in establishing gourmetten as a Dutch Christmas tradition, with the majority of households gathering around the table to cook their own dinner. 

Oliebollen and appelbeignets

Oliebollen
© Gebruiker TeunieLicence

On Oud en Nieuw, houses across the Netherlands are filled with the sweet and rich scent of frying oliebollen. This traditional Dutch treat is hundreds of years old, and is said to be the precursor to the doughnut after early Dutch settlers took the recipe with them to the New World. Unlike its progeny, oliebollen — which literally translates as 'oil ball' — it is specifically enjoyed when bringing in the New Year. 

Oliebollen can be filled with currants and bits of chopped apple, but it is usually simply coated in powdered sugar and cinnamon. Its close cousin is appelflappen, another New Year’s treat which resembles a cross between an apple pie and a doughnut. No Dutch New Year is complete without at least one of these treats, so make sure to indulge if you’re in the Netherlands on 31st December.

What’s the weather like in the Netherlands at Christmas?

Netherlands weather

The weather in the Netherlands is similar to what we have here in the UK, with relatively moderate temperatures all year round. Visit over the festive period and you’ll experience the kind of weather you’d expect in southern England — a lot of grey days and rain, with the possibility of sunshine and, the closer it gets to January, snow. Expect an average temperature of 4°C in December, dropping lower the closer you get to January, the country’s coldest month. 

Much like the UK, the Netherlands only sees sunlight from around 8.30am to 4.30pm in midwinter. A visit in December will therefore give you plenty of time to enjoy the gorgeous Christmas lights that adorn the city centres and set the perfect backdrop to a mug of bishopswijn and a selection of speculaas in a local café. 

Much like the weather here in the UK, if you were to sum the Dutch weather up in one word, it would be 'unpredictable'. Winter can see a month-long period when frost never leaves the ground, while on the other hand, temperatures can reach as high as 15°C. However, on the whole, the Dutch winter is cloudy and damp, and you should plan your activities with this in mind. 

Will it snow in the Netherlands at Christmas?

Amsterdam in the snow
© Laurl VäinLicence

White Christmases are few and far between in the Netherlands, with the capital, Amsterdam, last experiencing snow on Christmas Day in 2010. It’s therefore unlikely you’ll see snow on a visit here during the festive period. Frosts, on the other hand, are extremely common, so it’s wise to bring some good-quality boots with a firm grip along for the trip.

What clothes should I pack on a trip to the Netherlands at Christmas?

Amsterdam cyclist in the snow
© Ineke HuizingLicence

Given that one of the country’s most recognisable landmarks is its windmills, it should come as no surprise to learn that the Netherlands is an especially windy country. This makes for some particularly biting winter weather, so you should make sure to wrap up warm on a trip there over the festive period. 

Given that the Dutch weather is so unpredictable, it can be wise to pack for a wide range of conditions on a trip there in December. While it would be foolish not to bring a coat, you may never need to wear it — however, if the weather takes an unexpected turn for the worse, you’ll definitely be glad you did. 

If you were looking to start your trip in November to experience Sint-Nicolaas’s arrival first-hand, make sure to pack a raincoat, as this is the Netherlands' wettest month with an average rainfall of 90mm. Furthermore, if you fancied extending your trip into January, pack a hat and gloves alongside your coat, as average temperatures drop to a chilly 3°C.

The Netherlands' Christmas markets

Christmas market
© FrancoisLicence

Like many other northern-European countries, the Netherlands is famed for its excellent Christmas markets, which take over city centres up and down the country from late November to early January. At this time of year, almost every town and city in the Netherlands adorns its main streets and squares with strings of white lights and luscious green Christmas trees glistening with ornaments. 

If you want to experience the very best of what the Netherlands has to offer over the festive period, here’s our pick of the country’s premier Christmas markets. We’ve included key information about each, such as: when and where the market is held, the attractions that make it worth a visit, and the typical prices you can expect to pay for food and drink while you’re there. 

So read on to find the perfect Dutch Christmas market for you. 

Keukenhof Christmas Market

Keukenhof Christmas market

When: 4th–6th December and 11th–13th December

 Fri: 6pm–10pm
 Sat: 11am–10pm
 Sun: 11am–6pm

Where: The market is located in the beautiful Keukenhof Castle, a turreted 17th-century mansion attached to the world-famous Keukenhof gardens. 

Attractions: In spring, millions of visitors descend on Keukenhof gardens to witness the spectacular bloom of the carpets of tulips. During December, tourists visiting the picturesque estate will experience one of the Netherlands’ best Christmas markets. 

On a visit, you’ll be able to enjoy so much more than a hundred or so the stalls and chalets selling traditional Dutch gifts, food, and drink, as the castle also hosts an ice rink, a circus, and a storyteller. If you’d rather take things easy, then pick up a hot chocolate and a traditional Dutch festive treat from one of the stalls and enjoy the beauty of the grounds, which are adorned with decorations and glimmering lights each year. 

Typical prices: During a visit to Keukenhof, you can expect the bill to come to between €12–18 a head for a meal in an inexpensive restaurant and €25–40 in somewhere a bit higher-end. A half-litre of beer or a medium glass of wine will cost between €2.50 and €5, depending on where you’re buying, while a regular cappuccino will set you back around €2.  

Amsterdam Christmas Markets

Amsterdam Christmas market
© Tanya HartLicence

When: Amsterdam has several Christmas markets over the festive period which run throughout the month of December.  

Where: You’ll find permanent Christmas markets at the Museumplein (which is also the location of the city’s largest ice rink), Damrak, and Rembrandtplein, the latter of which specialises in traditional Dutch food and drink. 

Attractions: There are few better times to visit the beautiful Dutch capital of Amsterdam than during December, not least because the city is illuminated by the stunning sculptures of the Amsterdam Light Festival. This will be the fifth year running that the city will come to life with vibrant and imaginative light-based sculptures from 1st December to 22nd January. 

This year, Amsterdam will also be home to the Ijsbeelden Festival, which visits a different city each year. During the festival, which runs from 10th December 2016 to 5th February 2017, the city will be filled with 550,000kg of ice and snow which has been transformed into intricate sculptures by master craftsmen and women. The theme of this year’s festival is music, and you can expect to see lifesize carvings of musical icons from Beethoven to Bowie throughout the city centre.  

Alongside Amsterdam’s permanent markets, there are also a number of temporary installations. On 18th and 19th December, you can enjoy drinks and live music alongside a Christmas market at Roest, a bar located in the east of the city. On 13th December, there will be a dedicated Christmas market in the Amstelpark, and on the 20th there’s another at Frankendael park — these feature delicious food from local producers and plenty of potential gifts. 

Typical prices: A three-course meal for two at a nice restaurant in Amsterdam will set you back approximately €60, while half a litre of draught beer will cost between €4 and €8 — avoid the pubs on the main streets for significantly cheaper prices. 

Deventer Christmas Market

Christmas baubles

When: 19th and 20th December 2016.

Where: The Deventer Christmas Market takes over the whole of the city centre. The only entrance is through the Keizerstraat, where you’ll be joining 150,000 other visitors making their way into the popular festival. 

Attractions: The Deventer Christmas Market really is one of a kind. While here, you’ll not only find more than 200 stalls lining the cobbled streets and filling the magnificent gothic church hall, but also over 900 characters straight from the pages of Charles Dickens’ famous novels. Stepping into the Deventer Dickens festival is truly like taking a trip back in time. Scrooge, Marley, and Mr Pickwick walk the streets against the picturesque backdrop of this historic city alongside wealthy ladies and gentlemen in top hats and tails, carol singers, and street urchins. 

On the Sunday evening, the festival closes in the city centre with a performance of Christmas songs from a selection of local choirs, carol groups, and orchestras.  

Typical prices: The Deventer Dickens festival is free to enter, and while most restaurants and bars raise their prices at the arrival of 150,000 tourists at their doorstep, you can still find plenty of reasonably-priced places to grab a drink, snack, or meal down the city’s side streets. Stay clear of the main squares and you can expect a meal for two at a good-quality restaurant to come to approximately €50. Half a litre of draught beer will usually come to €4–7, as will a glass of wine, and a cappuccino will cost €2–3.  

Maastricht Christmas Market

Maastricht Christmas market

When: 2nd December 2016 to 1st January 2017. 

Where: During December, the whole of Maastricht is transformed into a winter wonderland, but head to Vrijthof Square to get to the centre of the festivities. 

Attractions: Maastricht takes Christmas very seriously, and this quaint Dutch city is well worth a visit over December if you’re looking for a festive fix. On a visit here, you’ll find cosy cobbled streets bathed in the warm glow of the Christmas lighting installation which connects the city’s squares. This display culminates in Onze Lieve Vrouweplein square, where you’ll find over 200 LED mistletoes illuminating the trees.  

You won’t be able to miss Vrijthof Square while you’re here, which not only features over 75 stalls and chalets, but an 800m2 ice rink and a giant illuminated Ferris wheel, all overlooked by a gothic basilica. 

Typical prices: Maastricht is a popular tourist destination during the festive period, and as such you should budget for quite inflated prices. While you can spend as little as €10 a head in some of the city’s cheaper restaurants at this time of year, you should expect that to be closer to €30–40 in somewhere more high-end. Half a litre of beer will come to around €4 away from the tourist attractions and can rise to €8 on the main streets, and a glass of wine will cost around the same. 

Valkenburg Christmas Market

Valkenburg christmas market
© C M FrieseLicence

When: November 13th 2016 to January 3rd 2017. 

 Mon–Thu: 10am–8pm
 Fri–Sat: 10am–9pm (11am–6pm on 23rd Dec)
 Sun: 10am–8pm

Where: The spectacular setting for the Valkenburg Christmas Market is a series of caves that run underneath Cauberg hill. The main market is found in the Municipal Cave, which is the largest and oldest underground Christmas market in Europe. 

Attractions: This year, the doors will open for the 31st time on the truly unique Christmas market at Valkenburg. Over the festive period, the caves that lie underneath the quaint town are adorned with decorations and transformed into a winter wonderland. 

In the Municipal Cave, the larger of the two, you’ll find stalls selling traditional Dutch gifts among the Christmas trees and decorations. The Velvet Cave is a cosier affair, and here you’ll be able to enjoy the breathtaking murals, sculptures, and 18th-century chapel alongside even more excellent stalls. 

During the festive period, the Valkenburg caves also feature impressive lifesize sculptures of nativity scenes made from sand. This will top off one of Europe’s most unique Christmas markets. 

Typical Prices: Entry to the Valkenburg Christmas Market is free for children under 5, €5 for children aged 6–12, and €7 for everyone else. 

Outside of the market, you can dine out in Valkenburg city centre for anywhere between €15–40 a head, depending on your budget and taste. A half-litre of draught beer will come to €3–5, while a regular cappuccino will set you back €2–3. 

Dutch Christmas phrases

Snow globe

In preparation for any trip, it’s a good idea to learn a few basic phrases in the local language. This could not only prove invaluable if you ever find yourself in an emergency while abroad, but it is also good manners to address the locals in their native tongue to the best of your ability. This will earn you a lot of respect from the Dutch natives you interact with, and you may very well put a smile on their face when you wish them a Vrolijk Kerstfeest!

Take a look at the key phrases we’ve listed below for all of the basics you need for a trip to the Netherlands during Christmas.

Dutch Greetings

English phrase

Dutch

Hello/hi

Hallo/hoi

Good morning

Goedemorgen

Good evening

Goedenavond

Goodbye

Vaarwel

 

Dutch Christmas phrases

Christmas Day

Kerstdag

Christmas Eve

Kerstavond

New Year’s Day

Nieuwjaarsdag

New Year’s Eve

Oudejaarsavond

St Nicholas’s Day

Sinterklaas Dag

Christmas present

Kerstcadeau

Christmas tree

Kerstboom

Season’s greetings!

Groeten van het seizoen!

Merry Christmas!

Vrolijk Kerstfeest!

Happy New Year!

Gelukkig Nieuwjaar!

White Christmas

Witte kerst

 

Dutch etiquette

Thank you/thanks

Dank je/bedankt

Please

Alstublieft

Excuse me

Excuseer mij

Yes/No

Ja/Nee

Sorry

Sorry

Where is the toilet, please?

Waarbjj si de toilet, alstublieft?

 

Shopping

What time do you close?

Hoe laat sluit je?

At what time do you open?

Hoe laat u opent

How much is it?

Hoeveel is het?

Do you take credit cards?

Accepteert u creditcards?

Do you have this in my size?

Heeft u dit in mijn maat?

 

Emergencies

I don’t speak Dutch

Ik spreek geen Nederlands

Do you speak English?

Spreekt u Engels?

Help!

Hulp!

I’m lost

Ik ben verdwaald

I don’t understand

Ik begrijp het niet

I'm looking for a pharmacy

Ik ben op zoek naar een apotheek

I feel sick

Ik voel me ziek

I need a doctor

Ik heb een dokter nodig

Where is the hospital?

Waar is het ziekenhuis?

Where is the police station?

Waar is het politiekantoor?

Call an ambulance

Bel een ambulance

 

Numbers

One

Een

Two

Twee

Three

Drie

Four

Vier

Five

Vijf

Six

Zes

Seven

Zeven

Eight

Acht

Nine

Negen

Ten

Tien

Visiting the Netherlands at Christmas

Amsterdam at Christmas 2
© Floris LooijesteijnLicence

With the wealth of fantastic Christmas markets filling its quaint and picturesque towns and cities, the Netherlands is the perfect destination for those looking for a festive getaway this winter. The country is linked by its famous canal systems, making a river cruise the perfect way to explore everything this enigmatic country has to offer, from the countryside to the heart of its cities.  

Here at The River Cruise Line, we offer a range of festive cruises to some of the Netherlands' most popular Christmas markets. Along the way, you’ll get the chance to experience the Netherlands' festive cheer, delicious food and drink, and rich history during this most wonderful time of the year. 

So, if you want to do something special with your Christmas this year, take a look at our Dutch Christmas market cruises. Book a place on our Christmas Markets Extravaganza cruise and Antwerp to Brussels Christmas cruise to see the very best of what both the Netherlands and Belgium have to offer over the festive period, including Valkenburg’s breathtaking cave markets. 

Our Belgium Christmas Markets cruise ends in the Dutch capital of Amsterdam, where you’ll be able to extend your trip by exploring the best of the Dutch Christmas markets as well. Our New Year’s Belgian Cruise also begins and ends in Rotterdam, giving you the chance to arrive in the Netherlands early and soak up the festive atmosphere before heading south to spend New Year’s in Belgium.  

If you’re still not sure where you’d prefer to go to get into the Christmas spirit, then make sure to check out our guides to Christmas in Germany, Austria, and Belgium for more inspiration.