Dutch Winter and Christmas Traditions
To properly get into the Dutch holiday spirit, why not get some insight on typical Dutch traditions? The perfect way to celebrate the holidays like a real Dutch.
Sinterklaas Dutch Tradition
The Dutch word for Saint Nicholas! Just as holly and jolly as one may expect from a Santa Claus, except this guy gets his own holiday even before Christmas! The red-clad gift giver arrives by steamboat in The Netherlands starting from the second week of November, carrying gifts for the local children. The big day is on December 5th, the eve of St Nicholas Day, when the gifts are exchanged for all the good Dutch boys and girls.
Fun fact: The Dutch Sinterklaas is traditionally known to live in Madrid, Spain! The North Pole is a bit too cold for this Dutch Christmas man, who would much rather prefer his sunshine and sangria for toy making!
Kids set out their shoes next to the chimney or by the back door, filling them with goodies and gifts for Sinterklaas. Typical treats include gingerbread men, marzipan, and chocolate letters. Children sing songs with excitement and wait to hear a knock on their door. Could it be, Sinterklaas? Have you been good this year?
Midwinter Horn Blowing (midwinterhoorn blazen)
Care to toot the horn of the holidays? Starting from the first Sunday of Advent, this ongoing tradition is the bellowing sound of horns and tree branches put together to make a monotone but powerful sound. There's an argument over its origin: some say it’s a religious tradition to celebrate the birth of Jesus, while others believe it came from the Pagans, and is a way to ward off evil spirits. Regardless, it’s pretty cool. You can find yourself hearing the sounds of the horns throughout various winter activities, church events, and at Christmas markets.
Did you know? It’s said the midwinter horns can be heard up to 4 to 5 miles away! It goes on until the Day of Epiphany on January 6th.
The Netherlands Christmas Markets
Let’s be honest, the top Christmas activity always circles back to the good ol’ Christmas market. We’ve lined up the best Christmas markets in The Netherlands that you need to put on your winter calendar this year. We’ve even got a few extra special recommendations of unique Dutch Christmas markets!
COVID-19 Update: As of November 12, new measures were announced in the Netherlands to limit the spread of Coronavirus. The new measures apply from November 13 to December 4, and include restaurants, bars, and cafes closing at 20:00. Shops considered non-essential will close at 18:00. In addition, COVID QR codes are required for entry to museums, attractions, ice skating rinks, canal trips, restaurants, and other public places. Fortunately for locals and visitors, it is not a hard lockdown, but it is important to stay up to date with the current rules. Make sure to check government.nl for more information.
Located right in the heart of the Museumplein is the Amsterdam Christmas market Ice*Village! Known for its perfect combination of markets and ice skating. They’ve got over 45 stalls of Christmas gifts, food and drinks for the whole family to enjoy. Feeling adventurous? Why not jump on the ice skating rink? Slide past all of Amsterdam's most popular museums!
Maastricht Christmas Markets
With a name like “Magical Maastricht” it’s pretty clear this city goes all out for Christmas! Deckin’ the halls has a whole new meaning with the town decked out in candle lights on the Onze Lieve Vrouweplein square. Take a romantic walk through the Magical Light Route in Vrijthof, or go up the massive Ferris wheel to witness the sea of lights from new heights. Hop on the skating rink, watch one of the live music performances, take the kids to the whispering tour for children, or visit the Saint Servatius Basilica for its first opening of the year! Visitors can light a candle and experience a moment of peace and serenity, or listen to Christmas stories. A truly magical Christmas wonderland.
The Hague Christmas Market
Celebrate Christmas like royalty! Leave it to the city in charge of the Dutch government to hold the Royal Christmas Fair, a market that feels extra regal. For two weeks in the historic centre of The Hague, more than 100 Christmas stalls are set up beneath twinkling lights, really giving you that majestic Christmas feeling. Winter fashion, gift ideas, and design decorations are among the items that can be found here everyday from 12:00 to 21:00. No tickets required here, so feel free to wander around whenever! After listening to the children’s choir or meeting THE Sinterklaas, you can head over to the Scheveningen for a breath of fresh air and an icy walk along the shoreline.
Country and Christmas Fair: Is there anything more charming than celebrating the beginning of Christmas time at a castle? Live out your fairy tale dreams at Castel de Haar - one of The Netherland’s more stunning castles that’s made even more magical with the winter holidays! Spanning across the lovely castle gardens are over 240 Christmas stands with decorated trees, statues, and other Christmassy decorations that will surely put you in a warm and fuzzy mode. Explore the castle grounds inside and out, listen to Christmas carolers, or witness the sound/water/light/fire show! This magnificent display takes place in front of the castle every 30 minutes, with spectacular colours and light. It’s even more impressive after dark, so make sure you stick around ‘til the evening!
Haarlem Christmas Market
Just a 10 minute train ride outside of Amsterdam is Haarlem, another Dutch city favorite. If you happen to be in the area around the second week of December, it’s definitely worth checking out the Kerstmarkt Haarlem, or Christmas market of Haarlem! The one weekend in December, the city converts into a traditional wintertime haven, with stalls filled with Christmas goodies! Cozy up with a glass of gluhwein and take in the festive decorations, wooden chalets, and probably even a Christmas caroler or two!
Rotterdam Christmas Market
Want to step out of the Dutch atmosphere for a few hours? Check out the Norwegian Christmas Market in Rotterdam! Located at the Norwegian seaman’s church (Sjømannskirken), you’ll find two separate markets held during two separate weekends in November. The stunning church is more than worth the trip, decorated in traditional paintings and carvings that will make you feel like a Christmas Viking, and you can find Norwegian handicrafts, sweaters, jewelry, and culinary specialties.
Bonus Christmas Markets in The Netherlands
Already done the whole European Christmas market thing and looking for something new? We’ve added two lesser-known and super unique Netherlands Christmas markets to the list for those wanting a fresh, authentic festive experience this winter.
If it’s Christmas vibes you’re looking for, you’ve come to the right place. From November 12 until January 9, the town of Valkenburg transforms into what is known as Kerststad, or Christmas city! This place is seriously oozing Christmas spirit. Like any traditional Christmas market, you can browse the typical homemade goods and gifts. But what makes Valkenburg stand out is its location: inside caves! That’s right, you can marvel at the festive lights, music, and Christmas treats above and below ground!
Pro tip: Make sure to download the Christmas town Valkenburg app to stay in the know with all the activities and attractions!
Leiden’s Floating Christmas Market (Drijvende Kerstmarkt Leiden)
Did you know? Leiden won the best Christmas Market in Europe in 2016! Now that’s high praise. Leiden is the charming sister city of Amsterdam - only a 30 min train ride away, and it’s known for having the best floating Christmas Market in the world! What’s a floating Christmas market, you’re wondering? They’ve basically set up 90 stalls on a floating platform along the Nieuwe Rijn, where you can find hand-crafted Christmas gifts, watch performances, and even try to ice skate on the floating ice-rink!
Top Winter Events Across The Netherlands
Transport back in time and space to the literary world of Charles Dickens! This beloved festival features all the featured classic characters: Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and of course Ebeneezer Scrooge! All along the streets of historical Bergkwartier you’ll find Christmas carolers, live orchestras, and potentially even a royal visit by Queen Victoria herself! With over 900 characters to dress up as, it’s a super fun way to get into the holiday spirit and appreciate one of the most beloved English writers.
Brighten up the dark, winter nights at one of Amsterdam’s annual winter events: Lichtfestival Amsterdam!! Over 20 unique light artworks are spread out throughout the bustling Dutch capital, where you can walk or cycle your way through the lit up masterpieces. Download the route map for all the exact locations, or listen to an audio guide that tells the stories that inspired the project. Want the ultimate Amsterdam experience? Book a canal cruise during the evening and glide underneath the glowing lights in Amsterdam’s famous canals!
Eindhoven also gets its own ‘lichtfestival’! Follow the light at the end of the winter tunnel in this modern city, with their annual event called GLOW! The city hosts a free light festival with art installations dotted around in different locations.
Throughout December, Dutch cities participate in candlelight evenings, where they exchange street lamps for thousands of candles to light up the city. How romantic is that? You can experience the cozy feeling all throughout the month of December in participating cities. The biggest and most popular candle light event is in Gouda bij Kaarslicht in Gouda. The event includes 1,500 candles across the town hall and city centre, featuring over 80 activities! You’ll also find shows and performances in local museums, churches, and in the streets. There’s also the lighting of the Christmas tree, and even a shepherd who brings in animals to create a realistic nativity scene! Did we mention it’s visited by 20,000 people a year both locally and globally? So it’s a pretty big deal. We can’t think of a better way to embrace the holidays than to cozy up to friends and loved ones while strolling along the candlelit paths of Gouda!
Ice, Ice, baby! Grab a warm jacket and prepare to be amazed by the art created by 550,000 kilos of ice and snow! Every year the world’s best ice sculpture artists join in Zwolle to create a magical winter wonderland. This year's theme is “What a Wonderful World,” with ice sculptures reaching up to 6 meters high! If that’s not impressive, wait until you see the special effects created by light, sound, and decorations to complete the art pieces. Need to warm up? They’ve got you covered with the Jagermeister ice bar, completed with heated terraces.
Winter Activities in Holland
Aside from all the big Christmas events that take place, there are also activities you can get involved with inside and outside this winter season.
Ice Skating in the Netherlands
Arguably the most beloved Dutch sport! Whether it’s the canals freezing over or just a man-made rink, there’s never a wrong time to lace up the skates and get out there. Lucky for you, most cities are going to have an ice skating facility of some sort. For our favorites, we recommend ICE Amsterdam in the famous Museumplein, the Olympic sized Coolest Rink in Amsterdam, Cool Event Scheveningen in The Hague, or if you’re really lucky - the canals of Giethoorn! Pro tip: Don’t just go ice skating on any body of water, make sure you check in with the authorities or locals to see if the canals are frozen enough to skate on.
The Eleven Cities Tour (Elfstedentocht)
The Dutch are so into ice skating, they’ve created an annual ice skating race that spans across 11 cities! The Royal Frisian Eleven Association - yes, they even have their own association - hosts the world’s longest ice skating competition every year once the temperatures drop low enough. Unfortunately the only one in charge of the timing is Mother Nature herself: there has to be a 15 cm thickness of ice before the event can happen. That means the Dutch most likely have their skates ready by the door all of winter, just in case! Good to know: Only members of the association can participate in the tour (with a maximum of 16,000 skaters) but don’t let that stop you from going out and witnessing the event! It’s basically The Netherland’s version of the Super Bowl, after all!
With winter comes cold weather, and short, dark days. Although Christmas markets have hot chocolate and gluhwein to warm you up, let’s face it: you don’t always want to be outside. On the days where you feel like getting out but staying indoors, why not check out a Christmas ballet? Any of our art and theater lovers will appreciate this magical performance to get you in the Christmas spirit. The Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam hosts the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, where guests can stare in awe at the living room transformed into a snowy forest, and iconic skating scenes across the Amsterdam canals!
Winter Wonderland at the Theme Parks!
If there’s one thing the Dutch love, it’s their theme parks. Get into the holiday spirit while also satisfying your inner adrenaline junkie! These types of events are always busy and they aren’t very authentic. But they’re good if you’re looking for a spectacle or something the kids will love. So, here are three theme parks in the Netherlands with extra cool Christmas events.
Get the family together for an action-packed Christmas celebration. Along with the typical rides, the park has added a 400-meter-long ice skating rink! Every day the Snow Princess and Fire Prince will leave their Ice Palace (with a real snow slide!) and visit kids in their sleigh. If that’s not enough to impress the little ones, check out the extra special light show at night, with 200 fountains coming to life with light effects, music, and fire.
Welcome to the Magic Winter Weeks at Toverland, where you and the family can get festive with Christmas decorations, campfires with roasted marshmallows, and even a Christmas themed rollercoaster!
The wild west themed amusement park transforms into the perfect winter atmosphere, with Christmas trees and cozy lights all spread throughout the park. They’ve got ice skating in the Winter Western Village, special live Christmas shows with Farmer Frank and the Winter Elf, and even a Christmas buffet! Don’t forget to grab a hot chocolate and go say hi to Sinterklaas!
What’s the winter weather like in The Netherlands?
While The Netherlands can still get pretty cold throughout the winter season, it’s not completely freezing. From December to February visitors can find themselves in temperatures ranging from 2.5 degrees to 4 degrees. It may feel colder by the sea or next to the canals, so remember to bundle up this holiday season!
How to dress for winter in Holland:
Layers are everything! Make sure you’re well prepared with a warm enough jacket, and pair it with a hat, scarf, and maybe even some gloves. The gluhwein can only keep you warm for so long!
Public transport is easily accessible in all Dutch cities. You can find buses, trams, and trains to get you from one Christmas town to the next. Considering The Netherlands is the bicycling capital of the world, you can also rent bikes to get around! But beware of the extra wind and cold air.
So you’re spending the festive period in the Netherlands this year? Great choice! The Netherlands is actually a great choice all year round. Check out our map to see all of the fun things you could be getting up to in this cycling-obsessed nation, whenever you decide to go.