After a four-day marathon drive from Athens in Greece, we had happily arrived in Pijnacker in The Netherlands just in time for the lead up to Christmas.
Our first Dutch Christmas experience was the Royal Christmas Fair in The Hague (Den Haag) – the seat of the Netherlands Government and the International Court of Justice.
Well wrapped up against the chilly weather we took the short metro ride to The Hague and walked to the Fair in the beautiful Lange Voorhout in the historic centre.
Twinkling lights and warming braziers were interspersed with stalls selling everything from woolly socks to candles, Christmas decorations to hot chilli sauce.
The most popular stalls were the food vendors who sold yummy treats such as braadworst (Dutch spicy sausage) and divine frites (French fries) with mayonnaise; pastries and many varieties of cakes including Gevulde Speculaas (a yummy almond filled cake with a spicy base) and warming drinks such as hot chocolate and Glühwein (peppery, spicy mulled wine – like Christmas pudding in drink form!)
There were also musical performances including two sets performed by the choir that our daughter Hannah sings in. It was so Christmassy listening to Christmas carols and other festive songs.
After the excitement of our arrival there were more even bigger celebrations just a day or so later when our daughter’s childhood friend arrived from Australia.
Christmas festivities then started in earnest with the buying and decorating of the Christmas tree (a real live one to be planted in the garden after the twelfth day of Christmas) and making homemade table decorations with ferns and berries from the garden.
That evening Hannah and her partner Pieter also officially announced their engagement so of course the bubbles kept on flowing!
More celebrations followed with Jonathan’s birthday – we had great fun ten-pin bowling with an Italian meal afterwards.
More Australian visitors arrived – a high school friend of Hannah’s and his partner on a whirlwind trip of Europe. We had a great day eating great food and drinking Glühwein.
Shopping trips in the cosy lanes of The Hague and Delft, walks in the frosty air, and then suddenly it was Christmas Eve with a wonderful feast, and a carol service followed by more eating and drinking and silly games!
Christmas Day in the Netherlands is different to the Christmas we have traditionally celebrated in England and Australia – especially relating to gifts. In the Netherlands Santa Claus (Sinterklaas) arrives on 5th December instead of the 25th.
On the evening of the 5th, younger children sing songs to Sinterklaas at the top of their lungs until they hear a loud knock on the door. If they have been good, they will find a bag bulging with gifts just outside the door (friends and neighbours help out here).
When the little ones are in bed the tradition here is that the older children and adults also receive gifts. In the highly organised Dutch way, each member of the family party draws a name in secret before the holiday and then buys a gift or gifts for that person. Also very Dutch is that there is often an agreement made about how much will be spent on the presents.
Another Dutch tradition is that the gifts are usually accompanied by humorous and slightly mocking poems filled with puns written specifically for the recipient and read aloud by them. It is often used as an opportunity for people to have a go, score points or take revenge on their siblings and friends.
We decided to continue with the Anglo/Australian tradition of opening gifts on Christmas Day after brunch but instead of the usual frenzy of multiple gifts we decided on a secret Santa where each person buys for one recipient.
We also each bought two or three little presents and played a game where you could either pick and unwrap a parcel or steal an opened one from another person. Always good fun when someone has secured a gift that they really like and the rest tease them by taking it from them! Usually everyone ends up happy with the gifts they have won!
Sadly we didn’t get a white Christmas we had wished for but we all thoroughly enjoyed the delicious food, the good wine, the gift exchange and the silly games and most of all being able to experience our first Dutch Christmas with our daughter and future son-in-law.