The people of the Netherlands do not just celebrate Christmas on December 25. Christmas celebrations here begin on December 5, the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas
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The saint was a bishop in the fourth century. One story about him claims he inherited money from his wealthy parents and used his wealth to help the poor. One legend tells how he helped a needy family. The three young girls in the family were unable to get married because their parents were too poor to provide dowries. St. Nicholas heard of their misfortune and dropped a bag of gold down their chimney to pay for the girls’ dowries.
St. Nicholas’ generosity is commemorated in the Netherlands today. He is known as Sinterklaas, and he is credited with giving presents to children on December 5. Sinterklaas lives in Spain, and he arrives in Amsterdam by boat on December 5. He rides a white horse in a parade through the streets. Children put carrots and hay for the horse in their shoes. They leave their shoes near a fireplace or on a windowsill. Sinterklaas leaves presents in their shoes.
December 5 is also a night for parties to celebrate St. Nicholas Day. Children receive presents from Sinterklaas at these parties. Other activities at the parties include games and treasure hunts. Biscuits made with marzipan or cinnamon are served for refreshments.
The Netherlands’ Christmas celebration continues through the month of December. Houses are decorated with evergreens. People put up trees in their homes decorated with candles, bells and ribbons. Trees are put up in the city squares and decorated. Streets are adorned with strings of lights shaped like stars or bells. Food stalls in the streets sell seasonal sweet treats such as oliebollen and appelflappen. Oliebollen are similar to donuts, and appelflappen are apple beignets. People can hear Christmas music played in the streets. Red and green decorations are used in department stores.
Children receive most of their presents during the celebrations of St. Nicholas Day, so Christmas Day is usually spent enjoying the company of family and eating. Children might hang up stockings and receive a few more presents. Some people attend church on Christmas Eve or Christmas.
Christmas Day may begin with a brunch of smoked salmon and fancy rolls. The last meal of the day is a dinner that may include pork, goose or game meats. Special dishes served for these meals include kerststol for brunch and gourmetten for dinner. Kerststol is a loaf with fruits. Gourmetten is made by placing a small grill on the table. People can grill small pieces of meat and vegetables. The day ends with people gathering around the fireplace to sing carols and tell stories. This day is known as First Christmas Day in the Netherlands.
December 26 is Second Christmas Day. People dine on leftovers or go out to eat. They may attend concerts. If the weather permits, they might spend time in an outdoor activity such as ice skating.