It makes sense that a seafaring nation like the Netherlands would add a nautical spin to the common Christmas traditions of continental Europe, but the logistics can be confusing to outsiders. Like many of their neighbours, the Dutch believe in Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas. A taller, thinner fellow than Santa Claus, he brings gifts much earlier in the season, somehow travelling by steamboat from his landlocked home in Madrid, Spain, and arriving at a different port each year on 5 December to deliver presents to children across the country. Naughty children run the risk of being taken back to Spain with him, so they can think about their bad behaviour till the following year. He sails home again from Rotterdam, the Hook of Holland, on 6 December.
A few weeks later, the newer and more globalised figure of Santa Claus will also visit many households from the North Pole, meaning a second load of presents for many lucky kids (and unlucky parents).
The Dutch start baking and frying sweet treats from Advent Sunday – four weeks before Christmas – with favourites including kruidnoten (ginger nut biscuits), appelbeignets (apple fritters), oliebollen (doughnuts fried in oil and dusted with icing sugar) and pepernoot (spicy cinnamon cookies). Christmas Day is a much quieter affair than the Saint Nicholas festivities earlier in December with most families staying home to enjoy a long, leisurely dinner centred around venison, goose, hare or turkey. Many serve a platter of hot meats and vegetables known as gourmetten, followed by pudding, ring-shaped kerstkrans Christmas cake and mugs of hot chocolate.