Trace your Dutch roots

Your quarterly Dutch genealogy guide

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Quarterly newsletter on Dutch genealogy. Issue #18. Publication date November 2010.

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Welcome to the November issue of this newsletter, the last issue of 2010. The topic of this newsletter is December Holidays:

  • Traditional December holidays in Holland
    • Sinterklaas
    • Christmas
    • New year's eve
  • Oliebollen recipe
  • Share your December family traditions

The next issue is planned for February. As always, topic suggestions may be sent to


Does your family still observe Dutch December traditions? Please click the link and answer the question - the results will be published in the next edition of this newsletter.

The previous poll question was: When did your ancestors leave The Netherlands? 115 people took the poll, and they were almost evenly divided over the main emigration eras:

  • In the wake of the secessionists (1845-1890): 28%
  • Post-war emigrants (After 1945): 26%
  • In the Ellis Island era (Between 1890 and the second world war): 24%
  • Early settlers (In the 17th century): 20%

2% of poll-takers is still in The Netherlands, and the rest (14%) voted Other. The total is more than 100% as some people had ancestors in multiple categories. The other category included emigrants who went somewhere else than the question suggested (Norway in the 17th century, so not an early settler, or Australia in the 1850s), other periods than listed (early 19th century), and even a few who emigrated themselves, rather than descended from emigrants. Some people also used other to give additional information on their answer.

Thank you for participating, and don't forget to vote in the new poll!

Traditional December holidays in Holland

In December, we celebrate three traditional holidays: Sinterklaas, Christmas, and new year's eve.


Sinterklaas is a typical Dutch tradition. Sinterklaas is a nickname for St. Nicholas, and we celebrate his feast every year on St. Nicholas eve (5 December).

Sinterklaas arrives about three weeks before his birthday (6 December), supposedly from Spain, on a steamship, with his assistants, the Zwarte Pieten (sing. Zwarte Piet, Black Pete), his grey horse, and plenty of presents for all Dutch children. Each year, he arrives in a different town. This year, the arrival was in Harderwijk, on 13 November. This arrival is broadcast live on Dutch television (it has been broadcast every year for decades), and featured on all the major news shows. In the three weeks he is in The Netherlands, he visits every school, every shopping mall, and many homes and companies. If you are in The Netherlands this week, there is a good chance you will meet him - just visit the nearest mall. He will be sitting on a central spot, while his Zwarte Pieten are walking around the mall, handing out pepernoten (ginger bread cookies) to young children.

While Sinterklaas is here, children will leave a shoe near the chimney before they go to bed. In modern houses or apartments without a chimney they leave their shoes near a small window. The children put a carrot or some sugar cubes in their shoe and a cup of water next to it (for the grey horse), and sing a traditional St. Nicholas song (loudly in case one of the Zwarte Pieten is on the roof, so that he can hear their songs). At night, Sinterklaas will ride over the roofs (on his grey horse), or send one of his Zwarte Pieten, to throw presents through the chimney into the shoes. If the children left something for the horse, or for Sinterklaas (some children make a drawing and put it in their shoes, as a gift for Sinterklaas), a Zwarte Piet comes down the chimney (however small the chimney may be) to collect it.

St. Nicholas eve is pakjesavond, present eve. If there are small children, the family will get together and sing traditional Sinterklaas songs. After a while, there is a loud knock on the door, the door opens slightly, and the hand of a Zwarte Piet is seen. Zwarte Piet throws a handful of pepernoten into the room. The children first crawl around to collect the pepernoten, and then open the door to see if Zwarte Piet is still there. He never is, but they do find a basket full of presents that he left behind. (For some reason, Zwarte Piet always chooses a time when one of the adults has gone to the toilet, or gone out to get some fresh air. The adult is then disappointed that he missed all the fun...)

If there are no small children in the family, people will give each other gifts, usually anonymously. They will draw names to decide who gives to whom, and then put their gifts in a basket, and everyone will open their gift on St. Nicholas eve.

Gifts are usually accompanied by a short, simple poem about the receiver, often of a teasing nature (at least for adults and older children). The receiver must read this poem aloud before he is allowed to open the present. Also popular are the surprises (pronounced surpreeses): Either ingeniously wrapped gifts or little practical jokes.

According to our tradition, only sweet children get presents, while naughty children get a rod. Many Zwarte Pieten hold a rod, that they use to wave menacingly. Extremely naughty children go into the empty sacks that were used for transporting the presents, and they are taken away by Sinterklaas on his steamship. I've never heard of any children actually receiving a rod, let alone being taken away in sacks, so I assume there are only sweet children in The Netherlands.

A longer version of this article appeared on the blog in 2008.


There are no typical Dutch traditions associated with Christmas. In the time before Christmas we send each other Christmas cards, and we decorate our Christmas trees and our homes. We may visit a church on Christmas day, eve or night. On Christmas day we tend to stay at home with our partner and children, on boxing day (we call it second Christmas day) we visit relatives. Traditionally we don't give each other gifts around Christmas, though nowadays many families do. Big diners are, of course, also part of Christmas.

New year's eve

We tend to spend new year's eve at home or with family. We play games, watch television, and eat oliebollen, a Dutch new year's eve treat. At midnight we raise our glasses and wish each other a happy new year. Afterwards we go out on the street and light fireworks, or watch the firework of others (we spent about 50 euro per family on fireworks, on average), and wish our neighbours a happy new year.

On new year's day we get up late, visit family to wish them a happy new year, and eat left-over oliebollen.

Oliebollen recipe

If you want to try your own oliebollen on new year's eve I'll share the recipe with you.

Oliebollen are deep-fried balls of dough, often with raisins, a kind of donuts without holes. To make them yourselves you will need:

  • 3dl. (10.14 fl oz) milk
  • 20g (0.7 oz) yeast
  • 400g (14 oz / 0.9 lb) flour
  • 2 eggs
  • salt
  • optionally: 200g raisins
  • oil for deep-frying
  • powdered sugar
  • a deep-frying pan

Mix yeast and lukewarm milk. Add flower, eggs and salt and mix well to make a smooth dough. Optionally add the raisins and stir through the dough. Put the dough in a bowl and fully cover the bowl. Let it rise for at least an hour on a warm place - don't take off the cover while it's rising! Using two wet dining spoons, let small amounts of dough - a spoonful per oliebol - slide into the hot oil. Keep the spoons wet (or slightly greasy) to prevent the dough sticking to the spoons. Deep-fry for about six minutes. For best results use a fork to turn them half-way through.

Serve hot or cold, with powdered sugar. Enjoy!

I shared this recipe before on my blog and on Squidoo.

Share your December family traditions

Do you celebrate Sinterklaas? Are there any Dutch elements in your December holiday celebrations? How does your family celebrate Christmas?

I opened a page on Squidoo where you can share your story. Please visit this page and comment. And don't forget to vote in the poll!

What happened on Trace your Dutch roots?

Because of the birth of our son (our first child!) I took a break from blogging. I will be back in January.

©2010 Henk van Kampen. All rights reserved.

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