Here are ten of the most unique Dutch traditions, and those which incoming or newly arrived expats in Holland should be aware of…
3-Cheek Kiss: If you’re North American, you probably thought it was awkward the first time you kissed a Brit goodbye. You probably pulled away after having kissed on the cheek, while they were leaning in to kiss you a second time on the other cheek. But the Dutch go even further. Instead of kissing each cheek like the Brits (a standard practice in most European countries), they kiss 3 times on alternating cheeks! This tricky 3-cheek Dutch kissing tradition supposedly first began in the southern part of the Netherlands, eventually becoming the standard way that Dutch friends and family greet each other.
Birthday Calendars: The Dutch never want to forget someone’s birthday. In fact, it is so important to them, that they many now use special wall calendars used exclusively for making note of birthdays. Equally as amusing, is that these Dutch birthday calendars are almost always hung in the bathroom! That’s one way to ensure it will always get seen!
Celebrating a Birthday at Work: People in other countries may be accustomed to having work colleagues do something special for them on their birthday, whether it be a cake, a gift or maybe even being treated to lunch on their special day. The situation is very different in Holland. Here it’s the person having the birthday who is expected to supply their own birthday cake, cookies or candy to share with fellow workers. Weird, no?
Agenda Planning: The Dutch are consumed with planning things in advance, not just at work but in their private livesas well. Every activity they do regularly is jotted down in an agenda, so rarely will you see one with wide open spaces. If you are a new expat in Holland, be aware that it is never a good idea to think of popping by your new Dutch friend’s place unannounced and expect to be welcomed in. Also don’t be surprised when you go to plan a date with a Dutch friend, the soonest opening they have is several weeks down the road.
Abraham & Sarah: One birthday-related tradition the Dutch have is ‘Abraham & Sarah’. This one only applies to a friend or family member who is turning 50 years old. The connection between turning 50 and ‘seeing Abraham’ comes from the bible story and imbues the wisdom one is assumed to have by that time in his/her life (a man turning fifty is said to see Abraham, while a woman sees Sarah). None of that is necessarily unique to the Dutch. BUT here’s the part that is…on the night before the person’s birthday, a giant blow up Abraham or Sarah is placed in front of the person’s house to ensure the birthday person actually does see Abraham (or Sarah) on their 50th. The inflatables are impossible to miss because some of them can be nearly as big as the house itself.
Raw Herring: Eating fish is not unusual; billions of people around the world do it all the time. But the majority of them eat the fish after it has been cooked. Of course, there are also those who eat raw fish in the form of sushi, with little pieces fish being consumed a mouthful at a time…with chopsticks. The Dutch, on the otherhand, turn eating fish into a totally different ballgame. In mid-June a day comes along called Vlaggetjesdag, which celebrates the first catch of herring of the season. On this day, and the weeks that follow, you can catch many a Dutch person dangling an entire raw herring over their mouth before dropping it straight in. Guess that’s so they don’t actually have to do any chewing, just the thought of which makes many an expat want to hurl!
Hagelslag: Here’s another unique Dutch tradition, putting sprinkles on bread for breakfast. That’s right, not jam which one might expect, but sprinkles… dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate and even rainbow! Don’t think that ‘hagelslag’ is strictly for children. Adults can be seen eating it too!
Keeping Blinds Open: The Dutch believe in keeping their ground floor blinds and curtains open pretty much all the time, because it shows they have nothing to hide. But it also helps to know that in Holland, it is considered inappropriate and taboo for a person to stand and stare into someone’s front window. So, in theory, the tradition of keeping blinds open makes sense. If you know people aren’t going to be peering through your window, there’s not much reason to close those blinds, right? BUT…for a new expat in Holland, it can make for a strange sight. Imagine walking through a typical Dutch old town. The street is mostly dark except for the lights coming from ground floors apartments. In one you’re bound to see a husband and wife eating at a dining room table, while in another you might see a mother, father and children all on the couch watching television. They look at you through the window (because looking outward is okay) looking at them and you just want to yell ‘get some curtains!’ 😉
Hanging School Bags on Flagpoles: The first time an expat sees a school bag hanging from a flagpole with the Dutch flag on it, they are likely to do a double take because of how strange it looks. Then you might think ‘I bet the people who own the house don’t even know some school kid vandalized their flagpole by tossing their knapsack on it.’ But then you come across the same scene on the next block and then the next and then you ask yourself what is going on? Well, as it turns out, what you are seeing is a Dutch tradition which takes place every June on the day that all high school seniors get their final exam grades and find out if they will be graduating. If the news is positive, the successful student (or one of the parents) will hang out the Dutch flag and attach to it the student’s schoolbag. This signals success to friends and neighbors who pass by the house.
Sinterklaas: This one is probably the most difficult Dutch tradition for an expat to grasp, since many will have grown up with Santa Claus or Father Christmas, and celebrating what that character means on a completely different date than the Dutch do. Add to that the fact that Santa Claus does in fact play a role in Dutch culture (albeit more recently and with a different name than we’re used to).
Okay, where to start describing this one?? Sinterklaas is a fictional Dutch character based on the historical religious fable of St Nicholas. He wears a red cape and hat and has little helpers which accompany him to deliver gifts to children on St Nicholas Day. Sound familiar? It is, in that the Santa Claus we’re used to was an offspring from this original one, but without the religious element attached to him.
The challenge comes when you try to reconcile in your head this newly learned about Dutch Sinterklaas character with the familiar Santa Claus character you grew up with. And a word of advice. Don’t even try. It will just make you more confused and irritated that you can’t grasp it. But that’s the way it is…
So… Dutch Sinterklaas arrives in mid-November from the south, as in Spain (not the north pole), on a steamboat (not a sled) with his helpers called ‘Pieten’ (not elves) and his regal white stallion ‘Amerigo’ (no reindeer). He doesn’t arrive in one place in Holland, he actually arrives in every city (most of them on the same day, with only a few cities welcoming him one week later). His arrival is reenacted similarly in each city, first the steamboat docks and the Sint disembarks. This is followed by welcome, welcome, welcome, the Pieten dancing, dancing, dancing and then it’s time for Sinterklaas to climb aboard Amerigo so he can be lead in a street parade to the city center, where he is offically welcomed by the Mayor. The parade route is lines with thousands of cheerful children and families (despite the weather almost always being rainy and cold). From there the Sint heads to a local haunt called Sinterklaas Huis, where he will rest up so that he has lots of energy of the coming two weeks to visit lots of different places around town, like shopping malls, schools and community centers.
Finally, on the evening of 5th December, Sinterklaas drops off gifts for all the good boys and girls (and sticks all the naughty ones into his empty sack). Then it’s the long steamboat ride back to Spain. Luckily, Amerigo has filled up on carrots so he should be fine.
And that’s where that unique Dutch tradition story ends. What happens the next day, when everything Sinterklaas is expunged to be replaced by everything Santa Claus…er er…I mean everything Kerstman (‘Christmas Man’). But that’s a different story for a different day!