About the Netherlands
The Dutch – all 16 and a half million of them – live in 41,528 square kilometres, little more than half the size of Scotland. This makes the Netherlands one of the world's most densely populated countries.
The Netherlands is best known for its tulips, windmills and clogs. And for its low altitude and vulnerability to flooding. Less well known is that the Netherlands has the sixteenth largest economy in the world, and ranks tenth in GDP per capita. Equally little known is that the Dutch have won Nobel prizes for chemistry, physics, medicine, economics and peace or that the world's planners and architects flock here to learn about Dutch solutions for this crowded country.
So what kind of people are the Dutch? What about their government and politics, economy, history, religion, the climate, their customs and etiquette, and particular ways of celebrating holidays and special occasions? This information about the Netherlands, developed in cooperation with the publisher XPat Media
, looks at the country from a potential visitor’s or trade partner’s point of view.
The country and its people
- The country and its people
- Facts and statistics
- Multicultural society
- Royal family
- Special occasions
- Customs and etiquette
- Holidays and traditions
- Dutch weather
- Holland or the Netherlands?
The Netherlands is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system. It forms part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. This consists of the Netherlands itself and six islands in the Caribbean: Aruba, and the five islands that make up the Netherlands Antilles – Curaçao and Bonaire, just off the Venezuelan coast, and Sint Eustatius, Saba and Sint Maarten, located southeast of the Virgin Islands.
On 10 October 2010, after a five-year long process of constitutional reform in the Antilles, the new structure of the Kingdom of the Netherlands went into effect. It is the most far-reaching revision of the Statute of the Kingdom of the Netherlands since 1954. The Netherlands Antilles was dissolved as a political entity. Curaçao and St Maarten, formerly parts of the Netherlands Antilles, have become autonomous countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba are now special municipalities of the Netherlands. These three islands are referred to as the ‘Caribbean Netherlands’. The Kingdom of the Netherlands now consists of four countries: the Netherlands (European and Caribbean Netherlands), Aruba, Curaçao and St Maarten. For more information, you can download a Q&A form by clicking here
The Netherlands is also sometimes called ‘Holland’. Holland is part of the names of the two western coastal provinces, North and South Holland, which have played a dominant role in the country's history.
Situated between the North Sea, Belgium and Germany, the Netherlands is roughly 300 km (+/- 190 miles) from north to south, and about 200 km (+/- 120 miles) from east to west. The capital city is Amsterdam, while the government is located in The Hague. Amsterdam is also the largest city, with a population of approximately 750,000.
The Netherlands is divided into twelve provinces:
Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht all belong to the large Randstad conurbation which has a population of ten million (almost two thirds of the entire Dutch population), making it one of the largest metropolitan areas in Europe. This intense urbanisation is due not so much to the four main cities themselves, but to the high number of medium-sized cities and towns. This is nothing new, however. Fifty per cent of the total population of the Holland region were already living in cities by 1500 AD.
Each of the Netherlands’ major cities has a distinctive character, even though they are all so close. Amsterdam attracts many tourists, with its historic centre, majestic buildings, museums and unique canal ring. The Hague, Delft, Haarlem, Utrecht, Groningen and Maastricht also have their share of historic buildings, museums, traditions and attractions. Rotterdam is renowned for its strikingly modern architecture, as exemplified by the Erasmus Bridge, known locally as the ‘Swan’.
Thanks to the location of North and South Holland on the estuaries of two major European rivers, the Rhine and the Maas, these two provinces are still very important for the economy. With Rotterdam being Europe’s biggest seaport, and Amsterdam Schiphol one of Europe's biggest airports, the Netherlands is an important gateway between Europe and the rest of the world.
Struggle against the sea
The Netherlands is a low-lying country, with about 27% of its area and 60% of its population below sea level. Most of the country is very flat, except the foothills of the Ardennes in the southeast and a hilly region in the centre. Significant areas have been gained through land reclamation and preserved using an elaborate system of polders and dikes. Polders are flat stretches of land, surrounded by dikes, where the water table is controlled artificially. From the sixteenth century onwards windmills were used not just to keep the land dry, but to drain entire inland lakes. The Netherlands’ unique appearance is characterised by large numbers of bridges, dikes, windmills and pumping stations.
The crowning achievement of Dutch water management is the Delta Project, a chain of dams protecting Zeeland and South Holland from the North Sea. Work on the project began after the disastrous 1953 floods, and ended in 1997 with the completion of a storm surge barrier in the Nieuwe Waterweg. The barrier has two enormous hinged gates that can be lowered in severe weather to close off the 360-metre-wide waterway. It protects greater Rotterdam's one million inhabitants from flooding without harming the environment.
The Dutch are the native inhabitants and dominant ethnic group (81%) of the Netherlands. They are also the tallest people in the world. The average Dutchman stands at 1.82 metres (just over 6 feet), while women average nearly 1.69 metres (almost 5 foot 7).
Winning the struggle against the sea has created a can-do attitude that is typically Dutch. And since controlling water requires many parties to meet and plan together, it has forced them to learn how to work as a team and adopt pragmatic solutions. European partners and the broader international community regard the Dutch as bridge builders and often ask them to serve as such.
The dominant religious identification of the Dutch is Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant). Dutch society used to be strictly organised along religious or ideological lines with every grouping having its own schools, newspapers, trade unions, clubs and so on. Although modern Dutch society has become increasingly secular, traces of the old system can still be seen today in the media, interest groups and the education system.
Dutch society is egalitarian, individualistic and modern. Education, hard work, ambition and ability are valued; things considered non-essential or excessive are not. The Dutch are proud of their cultural heritage: a rich history in art, architecture and technological advancements, and involvement in international trade and affairs.
The Netherlands is a founding member of the EU, NATO and the OECD, and has signed the Kyoto Protocol. The Hague area is home to more than 80 international organisations (including NGOs) working in the fields of peace, justice and security. The Netherlands also hosts five international courts in or near The Hague: the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Court and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. This has led to the city being dubbed ‘the legal capital of the world’.
The Dutch language
Dutch is the native language of more than 22 million people in the Netherlands and Belgium. In north-western France, around 60,000 people speak a Dutch dialect.
Dutch is used widely in government and education in the former colony of Suriname, and in Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles, which are part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. In Indonesia, many lawyers and historians speak Dutch owing to historical ties. Afrikaans, which is spoken in South Africa, is an offshoot of Dutch. Dutch has also influenced other languages, especially in shipping, waterworks and agriculture.
Dutch is taught at around 250 universities around the world. In French-speaking Belgium, northern France and Germany, many pupils choose Dutch as their second language. In 1980, the Netherlands and Flanders founded the Nederlandse Taalunie (Dutch Language Union), which promotes Dutch worldwide and draws up rules for spelling and grammar.
In the province of Friesland, they speak a separate language: Frisian. This officially recognised language is the native language of around 400,000 people. It is similar in some ways to English and the Scandinavian languages. Dutch is used in schools throughout the country, including Friesland.
Facts and statistics
The total land surface area is 33,948 km2 (21,218 sq. miles). This excludes all inland and territorial waters wider than 6 metres/20 feet. If all the water surface area is included, the Netherlands’ total area works out at 41,526 km2 (25,954 sq. miles)
The Netherlands’ North Sea coastline is longer (642 km) than its border with either Belgium (407 km) or Germany (556 km).
About 60% of the population live below sea level.
The highest point in the Netherlands is the Vaalserberg in the province of Limburg. It is 321 metres/1,053 feet above sea level.
The lowest point in the country, located in the Prince Alexander Polder northeast of Rotterdam (Nieuwerkerk a/d IJssel), is 6.76 metres/22.18 feet below sea level.
Head of State: Queen Beatrix
Type of state: constitutional monarchy
Seat of government: The Hague
Population: 16.6 million
‘Non-Western’ non-natives: 1.83 million
‘Western’ non-natives: 1.5 million
Number of households: 7.35 million
Average life expectancy men: 78 years, women: 82 years
Average age: 38.7 (gradually increasing: in 1990, it was 36.6)
Population growth: 100,000
Religion: 6 out of 10 persons profess to being religious
Percentage of divorces: 34% (2007)
Healthy to very healthy: 80.6%
Countries of origin of immigrants: EU countries and returning Dutch citizens
Emigrants: 89,109 (down from 116,000)
Countries of origin of asylum seekers: mostly Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan
Labour force: 7.75 million
Unemployment: 379,000 (4.9% of the labour force, up from 3.9% in 2009)
Predicted unemployment 2010: 510,000 (might be too pessimistic)
No. of job vacancies: 128,000 (down from 253,000 in late 2007)
Unfit for work: 831,000
Inflation: 1.1% (EU 1%)
Economic growth 2009: -4% (EU -4.2%)
Expected growth 2010: 1.5%
Gross National Product per capita: €34,000
Consumer confidence: -10
Most important trade partner: Germany
Average income: € 32,000 gross
Average price of a house: €233,858
Real estate sales: -30%
For specific facts, figures and forecasts regarding the Dutch economy, please visit these websites:
Statistics Netherlands (Dutch and English)
Statistics Netherlands articles on recent economic and demographic trends in the Netherlands (Dutch and English)
OECD reports and statistics on the Netherlands (English and French)
(English) for comparative statistical information on world countries
People have been migrating to the Netherlands for centuries, from French Protestants (Huguenots) in the seventeenth century to twentieth-century immigrants from former Dutch colonies Indonesia and Suriname, and the Caribbean parts of the Kingdom. In the 1960s and 1970s a labour shortage attracted many migrant workers from southern Europe, Turkey and Morocco. The total Dutch population is close to 16.5 million, 19% of whom are immigrants and/or belong to ethnic minorities. People with a foreign ethnic background tend to live in the larger cities: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, and The Hague. Here, they make up approximately 30% of the inhabitants.
Immigration and asylum
Since 2004, immigration policy has become more restrictive. Immigrants are admitted on only three grounds: if their presence serves an essential Dutch interest, if they are entitled to live here under an international agreement, or if there are compelling humanitarian reasons for admitting them. The government actively pursues policies to help immigrants integrate.
The Netherlands also has a long tradition of accepting asylum seekers, from Spanish and Portuguese Jews in the sixteenth century to asylum seekers from the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Many have also come from the former Soviet Union, Iraq, Ghana, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Iran. In the 1990s increasing numbers of people sought political asylum, reaching approximately 50,000 in 2000. That year, the Dutch government decided to change the law, making political asylum more difficult to achieve.
Muslims in the Netherlands
There are approximately one million Muslims in the Netherlands, which is about 6% of the population. Groups from Morocco and Turkey account for more than 75% of the Muslim population. A great many strands of Islam exist within the Dutch Muslim community. As well as Sunnis, there are Shi’ites, Alevis and Ahmadis, not to mention a number of Sufi orders.
Muslims play an active part in Dutch politics. The Muslim Democrat (Islam Democraten) Party, for example, has a seat on The Hague’s municipal council. Several members of parliament and the mayor of Rotterdam are also Muslim.
Article 1 of the Dutch Constitution says: ‘All persons in the Netherlands shall be treated equally in equal circumstances. Discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief, political opinion, race or sex or on any other grounds whatsoever shall not be permitted.’ Muslims have the same civil, social and political rights as other Dutch residents, including the right to practise their religion freely, to build mosques and to establish religious organisations. The Dutch Constitution also guarantees the right of Christian and Muslim schools to be fully financed from public funds.
Festivals and food from many cultures
The multi-ethnic make-up of the Dutch population also means festivals and special events from different cultures. Restaurants specialising in hundreds of cuisines from every continent can be found in most urban areas.
In Rotterdam, the annual Summer Carnival revolves around a huge street parade through the city centre, with hosts of marching bands and glittering dancers. Participants are predominantly of Latin-American, Cape Verdean, Antillean and Surinamese heritage. In 2007 the Summer Carnival started a brass- and steel-band exchange with the famous Notting Hill Carnival in London.
Pasar Malam Besar, the largest European-Indonesian (indo) festival in the world, has been held annually in the Netherlands since 1959. The 12-day event celebrates, preserves and develops indo culture. In The Hague, it attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year. It features music, food, dance, merchandise of all kinds (including antiques) as well as workshops and masterclasses.
Chinese New Year is celebrated in many Dutch cities with parades, dragon and lion dances, music played on traditional Chinese instruments, acrobatics and even kung fu.
Although modern Dutch society is very secular, and not many Dutch people identify with an organised religion, the country is filled with churches and other places of worship.
Why many Dutch churches are plain
Before the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, most Dutch people were Roman Catholics and churches were full of altars, images and ornate decoration.
The Reformation took place in the Low Countries against a background of resistance to Spanish domination. The Spanish were militant Catholics, and their persecution of Protestant ‘heretics’ sharpened the economic and political conflict. It also inflamed the fury with which the Dutch reformers stripped their churches of all the trappings of the Catholic Church. All statues and decorations were removed, and altars were either removed or replaced by burial monuments for leading citizens. Only the pulpits were left standing. Today most of the churches built before the Reformation are still Protestant and sober. Only in the southern provinces, where Catholics accounted for a larger percentage of the population, did they succeed in regaining control of the old churches.
Of the Dutch people who nowadays claim church affiliation, about half are Roman Catholic and half are Protestant. However, only about 20% of the population attend services regularly. The southern provinces of Brabant and Limburg are predominantly Catholic, while the other provinces are predominantly Protestant.
At the time of the Reformation some Dutch Protestants followed the teachings of Martin Luther, but most followed the more radical John Calvin. The main feature of Calvinism, in addition to its sobriety, was its belief in predestination – the belief that some people are destined for a place in heaven and others are not. These ideas have evolved, and different streams and communities have developed over the years. The two main categories of Protestantism in the Netherlands – the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederlands Hervormde Kerk) and the strict Calvinist Gereformeerde Kerk – have recently merged with the Lutheran Church to form the Protestant Church in the Netherlands. But there are other groups as well – Evangelical, Baptist, Apostolic, Pentecostal and more.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Dutch Catholic Church was extremely progressive. Since some conservative appointments by the current Pope have made it less so, there is now quite a range of congregations. At one end of the spectrum there are parishes still using the Latin liturgy, and at the other end parishes committed to the most modern ideas and practices. There are also Byzantine Catholic communities.
With approximately 1 million practising Muslims in the Netherlands (6.25% of the population), Islam has become one of the country’s main religions. Mosques have been built in most of the larger cities by communities of immigrants from Turkey, Morocco and Indonesia. It is projected that by the year 2020 Islam will be the second largest religion in the Netherlands, with 7% of the populace Muslim and only 10% Catholic. The Dutch public is also gradually learning more about Islam – enough to make allowances for colleagues, employees, fellow students and pupils who fast during Ramadan, for example. In recent years many Muslim community organisations have started inviting non-Muslims to participate in Eid-al-fitr feasts at the end of Ramadan.
Before and during the Second World War many Jews came to the Netherlands – where there already was a large Jewish community – to escape growing anti-Semitism in Europe. The Netherlands had remained neutral during the First World War and, more importantly, had a centuries-long tradition of religious tolerance. The Jews hoped these factors would allow them to find a safe haven, but the Netherlands was occupied by Nazi Germany during the war and more than 100,000 Jews were deported. Still, a sizeable Jewish community remains, centred in Amsterdam, though synagogues can also be found in other cities.
Other religions and philosophical groups
Other religious affiliations that have active communities in the Netherlands include Hinduism, Buddhism and Baha’i.
Instead of being members of churches, some people in the Netherlands belong to groups that share a particular philosophical outlook on life. The main ones that are also known outside the Netherlands are: Anthroposophists, Humanists, New Age and the Sufi Movement.
In the Netherlands, the royal family and the Royal House are not the same. The royal family is the Orange-Nassau family, not every member of which is a member of the Royal House. By Act of Parliament, the members of the Royal House are the monarch (currently, Queen Beatrix), the former monarch (on abdication), the members of the royal family in the line of succession to the throne (Prince Willem-Alexander, Prince Constantijn and their children, Princess Margriet and her two elder sons) and their spouses. Members of the Royal House who marry without the official approval of parliament lose the right to succeed to the throne.
The monarch, together with the ministers, form the government. It was determined in 1848 that the ministers, and not the monarch, would be accountable for acts of government. Laws passed by parliament are signed by both the monarch and the accountable minister.
After elections the Queen invites the vice-president of the Council of State, the presidents of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and the leaders of the parties in the House of Representatives to advise her on the formation of a new government. The Queen then asks one or more informateurs (‘mediators’) to preside over consultations with the leaders of the parties that seem most likely to be able to form a coalition. Once a draft coalition agreement is reached, a formateur will be asked to form a new government. When the political parties have agreed on a programme for the new government the Queen appoints and swears in the new ministers and state secretaries.
Every year on the third Tuesday in September, Prinsjesdag (the state opening of parliament), the Queen and members of her family ride in the Golden Coach from her palace in The Hague to the Ridderzaal (‘Hall of Knights’) in the Binnenhof. Here the Queen gives a speech called the Troonrede (‘Speech from the Throne’) before the members of the Senate and House of Representatives, setting out the government’s policies for the coming year. Prinsjesdag is a popular outing for schools, as well as for grown-ups and tourists who come to The Hague to watch the royal procession and wave to the Queen.
2002: a year of milestones
February 2002 saw the marriage of Crown Prince Willem-Alexander and his popular Argentinian bride Máxima Zorreguieta. In June of the same year, Queen Beatrix’s and Prince Claus’s first grandchild was born to Prince Constantijn and Princess Laurentien – a girl named Eloise. She was followed by a brother, Claus-Casimir, on 21 March 2004 and a sister, Leonore, born on 3 June 2006.
Also in 2002, to the sorrow of the Dutch people, Queen Beatrix’s husband Prince Claus passed away on 6 October after years of deteriorating health. Prince Claus was a man of dignity and modesty, who managed to fulfil a very public but non-political position with dedication and success. He devoted much of his energy and convictions into translating his love for Africa, where he had lived as a child, into development aid for African countries. Over a period of several days tens of thousands of people went to Noordeinde Palace in The Hague, where his body lay in state, to pay their last respects.
The future queen
On 7 December 2002 Princess Máxima, the wife of Crown Prince Willem-Alexander, gave birth to a daughter, Princess Catharina-Amalia. As the Dutch Constitution does not allow discrimination on the grounds of gender, she will succeed Prince Willem-Alexander to the throne, even if he were to have sons after her. On 26 June 2005 the couple had their second daughter, named Alexia. Their third daughter, Ariane, was born on 10 April 2007.
The Crown Prince’s official duties focus on water management and access to water, in the Netherlands and globally. Princess Máxima is involved in activities aimed at integrating immigrant women and women from ethnic minorities into Dutch society and – on a worldwide level – in initiatives providing micro-credit as an instrument of development aid.
Queen Beatrix’s Silver Jubilee
In 2005, Queen Beatrix celebrated 25 years as monarch of the Netherlands. Numerous celebrations and events were held, to which dignitaries and members of royal families from all over the world were invited. Queen Beatrix visited all 12 provinces of the Netherlands in 2005, taking the opportunity to acquaint herself with how things stood in each of them.
Birthdays are one of the most important occasions in Dutch people’s lives. Nearly everyone celebrates their own birthdays and those of others with great enthusiasm. Family and friends visit the birthday boy or girl at home, or telephone or send a birthday card. It is considered rather anti-social for someone to ignore his or her own birthday. Contrary to many other countries, where the birthday celebrant is treated, the Dutch celebrant plans and hosts the festivities, inviting and treating friends and family, most often at home. The custom in the workplace is to bring pastries for colleagues to enjoy over coffee. Likewise, children bring treats to school for all their classmates. When someone turns fifty it is not uncommon for a huge party to be given, sometimes preceded by a day full of activities.
Birthday calendars, which are usually hung in the bathroom, help people to keep track of the dates on which they have to pay visits or send cards. A word of advice: don’t overlook a Dutch person’s birthday; such forgetfulness borders on insolence. Curiously, it is customary to congratulate not only the person whose birthday it is, but also his or her relatives. To say or hear ‘Congratulations on your mother’s birthday’ is quite normal.
A church ceremony alone does not constitute a legal marriage in the Netherlands. A civil ceremony, conducted by a local official, often in the town hall, is required for a couple to be legally married. In the civil ceremony witnesses sit on either side of the couple in a prominent place, two for the bride and two for the groom. The official, who will have been given some personal details about the couple beforehand, gives a talk that is a cross between a sermon and a friendly chat, often delivered with a good dose of humour. After the couple are pronounced married and exchange rings, the witnesses sign the marriage register. A Dutch wedding can consist of both a civil and a church wedding in one day.
Following the ceremony, the celebrations often take place in three stages: a reception, a lunch or dinner and a party. The reception is generally held after the marriage ceremony and starts with the guests lining up to congratulate the bride and groom individually. Drinks and snacks may also be served. When the couple leave the reception they are showered with rice or confetti by their guests outside. The couple then travel in a specially decorated vehicle, sometimes a limousine or a coach, to the next event. It is quite common to invite different people to different celebrations. Family and very close friends are usually invited to everything, while colleagues and neighbours may be invited only to the reception or party.
It is customary in the Netherlands for the parents to send cards, often specially designed, to relatives, friends and sometimes colleagues, to announce the birth and name of their new baby. These same friends and relatives, even those that the parents may not have seen for some time, call to make an appointment to come and admire the new arrival. This is when gifts for the baby are given – usually a toy or some item of clothing. Visitors are served tea or coffee and buttered rusks covered with coloured sprinkles: pink for girls and blue for boys. New fathers also treat their colleagues to these rusks, passing them around personally.
Gifts and cards
The Dutch give each other gifts on various occasions. These include birthdays, visits to someone’s home for a meal, and parties to celebrate weddings, anniversaries and graduations. Gifts are generally small and not lavish, unless they are for a family member. Bouquets of flowers, bottles of wine and boxes of chocolates are common gifts. Friends or colleagues might pool their contribution and buy what is considered a larger gift, such as a book or CD. The recipient opens the gift immediately after it is given. Not to do so would be considered impolite.
Greeting cards are sent on many occasions. In addition to birthday cards, there are congratulatory cards for such events as passing exams, moving to a new home and taking early retirement. Millions of postcards are also sold, and not just to tourists. Many Dutch people send them as thank you cards after they have enjoyed a meal at a friend’s home, for example.
When someone passes away the family send out cards, usually with grey borders, announcing the death, and often place an announcement in the newspaper. When you hear of the death of a friend or neighbour or their loved one you can write a short note of condolence. If the friend is a close one you can visit the family to pay your respects (do not do this unannounced) or give them a short phone call. Sometimes the announcement will state that the family does not wish to be disturbed before the funeral or that the funeral will be held for the immediate family only. Some families prefer that you donate money to a charity rather than give flowers, in which case the card will suggest the charity of choice.
It is traditional to attend a funeral service, often held in the funeral home rather than in church. Depending on their relationship to the deceased, people may have a flower arrangement delivered by a florist to be placed on the coffin, to which a ribbon or card is attached with a few final words and the names of the sender(s). In addition to any religious observances, during the service a close relative or friend will speak about the deceased from a podium, calling on others to come up and speak. The deceased’s favourite music may be played, or family films shown. A reception follows the funeral. People express their condolences in person to the family, and coffee and cake are served. Although darker clothes are worn, black is not obligatory.
Customs and etiquette
Compared to many cultures, the Dutch are reserved in public and refrain from extreme displays of physical affection, anger or exuberance (except at/after certain sports events). The Dutch don’t tend to strike up casual conversation with strangers, but will respond readily when addressed and always try to be helpful when asked a question. In conversation, the Dutch are very direct, use a lot of eye contact and don’t consider it impolite to express criticism or speak on their own behalf. They allow – and even expect – the same behaviour from the person they’re talking to. This shouldn’t be interpreted as rudeness. Most people in the Netherlands speak English because it is taught from primary school on, but fluency differs depending on age and background. German is also widely spoken.
Stating your name – both first and last or your last name only – when you introduce yourself or are introduced by someone else is considered basic protocol. When introducing themselves the Dutch also shake hands with every person in the room.
As a rule, the Dutch do not like visitors to stop by unannounced. If you know someone well you can call in the morning to ask if you can come by later that day or evening, but normally you should call further in advance. The greater the social distance between you, the longer in advance you need to call. Grown children even call their parents – and vice versa – to see if it is all right to come by. It is considered impolite to enter a house without being invited to. Once inside, people tend to stand around and chat for awhile until the host or hostess suggests that everyone sits down. If you want to sit down right away, ask where first.
Conversely, do not invite Dutch acquaintances to ‘drop by any time’. Set a specific time and date and mention what kind of refreshments or food you intend to serve. ‘Come by next Tuesday at two for coffee’ and they will be there at the stroke of two. ‘Fashionably late’ in Dutch culture is waiting for the bell on the clock tower to stop chiming before you ring the doorbell.
Since the Dutch do not like ‘surprise’ visits, the coffee will be ready to pour when you arrive. Yours should be too. An offer of coffee (or tea) is the absolute minimum expected when someone visits your home. Even the workmen who come to fix a leaky tap will be offered a cup of coffee. Suffice it to say that there will also be biscuits or, if this is a special occasion like a birthday or anniversary, cake or pastries. Always wait to be served. It’s considered very impolite to help yourself. And don’t forget to offer your Dutch guests a second round of coffee, tea or biscuits; they will not help themselves.
Gifts when visiting
A visit to someone’s home invariably calls for a gift. Flowers, biscuits, or sweets are almost always appropriate. If you think that your host or hostess might be dieting or diabetic, take flowers. Flowers are quite inexpensive in the world’s largest flower exporter and are a welcome present.
The arrival ritual for good friends and family members at a Dutch home catches many foreigners by surprise. Ladies begin first, kissing each person there three times – the number is significant – on the cheek (right-left-right). The men follow, shaking hands with the other men and kissing all the ladies lightly on the cheek three times (right-left-right). Foreigners can get by with shaking hands instead of kissing.
On the phone
Unlike many countries where some form of ‘hello’ is sufficient, the Dutch always identify themselves immediately when they answer the phone. They either use their first name (Jan), or last name (Jansen) or both (Jan Jansen). The caller is also expected to identify him or herself before stating the aim of the call. If you’re using English or some other commonly shared language to communicate on the phone in the Netherlands, you should adopt this custom. It is considered rude to answer or initiate a phone call saying only ‘hello’.
Holidays and traditions
February - Carnival
Dutch carnival has the same origins as carnival in Europe, Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans: a short period of excess before a long one of fasting during Lent. It is celebrated in the Netherlands with particular passion in the southern, predominantly Catholic provinces of North Brabant and Limburg, where virtually all businesses except cafés and restaurants close for three days. Despite the cold, people get dressed up and go from café to café singing songs, participating in parades and consuming large quantities of beer. In the province of Limburg there is the added element of poking fun at the government and politics with satirical banners in parades. Strangers are welcome, and it is a great way to meet new people. The cities of Breda, Maastricht and ‘s Hertogenbosch are major venues.
30 April – Koninginnedag, or the Queen’s Birthday
The Dutch are extremely fond of their queen. In fact, the Dutch royal family has always been very popular, and their birthdays are celebrated with enthusiasm. Since Queen Wilhelmina’s 18th birthday in 1898, the holiday has been officially referred to as Koninginnedag (‘Queen’s Day’). 30 April was established as Koninginnedag when Queen Juliana changed the date to her own birthday. Queen Beatrix, the current monarch, now celebrates her official birthday on 30 April, although her real birthday falls on 31 January. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, Queen Beatrix wanted to continue celebrating Koninginnedag in April as a mark of respect for her mother; secondly, the idea is that the weather will be much better at the end of April than at the end of January.
People celebrate Koninginnedag either by visiting one of the two towns or cities the Queen visits on the day (which are different each year), or by going to one of the bigger cities. Amsterdam and Utrecht in particular go all out on this day, with huge flea markets filling city-centre streets. In Utrecht, this starts the night before. Stands run by young and old sell anything and everything. Many other towns and cities also have a Queen’s Market (koninginnemarkt), a great opportunity for bargain hunters and antique buffs, as well as concerts and fun fairs.
4 May – Remembrance Day
A day of great national significance, 4 May is the day when Dutch victims of war are remembered. Special tribute is paid to civilians and members of the armed forces who fell in the Second World War, and to all Dutch nationals who have lost their lives since in other wars or in peace operations. Unlike most countries, the Netherlands does not mark the occasion with grand military parades. At 8pm, a two-minute silence is observed nationally. People stop whatever they are doing (often pulling their cars over to the side of the road) to honour the dead. Even local radio and television broadcasts are halted. In many municipalities, people come together for short ceremonies and speeches. In Amsterdam, special wreaths are placed at the national monument in Dam Square by the Queen and other dignitaries for civilians who died in Europe between 1940 and 1945. Flags are hung at half mast throughout the country.
5 May – Liberation Day
Following the sober commemorations of 4 May, the Dutch celebrate their total liberation from German occupation on 5 May 1945 (some parts of the Netherlands had been liberated in November 1944). Flags are hung at full mast and the streets take on a festive look. Commemorating the dead and celebrating liberation are individual events of equal importance, which is why they take place on different days. Although this memorable day is not celebrated as extensively as it used to be, Liberation Day events are still organised in many parts of the country. The official launch of the celebrations is held in a different place each year, and an open-air concert in Amsterdam ends the day. Traditionally held on the Amstel River and broadcast live on television, the concert takes place in the presence of the Queen and members of the government.
5 December – Sinterklaas (St Nicholas)
The typical Dutch personality called Sinterklaas, or St Nicholas, will be familiar to anyone whose Christmas celebrations include a white-bearded, red-clothed male figure who gives presents to children.
6 December is St Nicholas’s birthday (some claim it’s the anniversary of his death, with his birthday the day before) when, according to legend, this fourth-century Saint gave gifts of gold to three poor girls for their dowries. Dutch children still receive chocolate coins around this time. Throughout the centuries, Sinterklaas has been considered the patron saint of children, as well as of traders. Consequently, on 5 December he brings them gifts that are discreetly dropped off in a sack on the doorstep of each household. During the evening, families exchange small gifts, normally hidden somewhere or in something. They can be serious or silly and/or homemade, and are called a surprise. Besides looking for and opening presents, people drink hot chocolate and eat special sweets and pastries. Chocolate letters representing the first letter of the recipient’s name are exchanged.
Sinterklaas is not only a holiday for children. Tradition demands that gifts be accompanied by a fitting poem about the recipient, so grown-ups like to participate in the fun by composing poems that summarise the person’s year, referring to their surprising habits and silly mistakes – often in a gently teasing tone. This is the essence of Sinterklaas: enjoying yourself and poking gentle fun at each other.
Despite the initial similarities with Santa Claus, Sinterklaas lives in Spain – not at the North Pole. Santa Claus flies in from the North Pole on his sleigh; Sinterklaas and his white horse arrive in the Netherlands from the south of Spain on a steamboat. Santa Claus squeezes down, and then back up, chimneys himself; Sinterklaas has a whole crew of helpers named Zwarte Pieten, or Black Petes, to do that for him.
December – Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve
Christmas Day is normally reserved for religious observances and family gatherings, increasingly combined with gift-giving. 26 December, Boxing Day, is also a holiday in the Netherlands. Many people go to afternoon concerts or musicals and have dinner with friends or more distant family members.
During the evening of New Year’s Eve, families and friends gather together at home to eat snacks, play board games and watch traditional, generally satirical reviews of the year by popular Dutch comedians on TV. However, at the stroke of midnight, after toasting the New Year with champagne, everyone runs out on the street to set off enormous stocks of fireworks bought over the previous few days. Shortly after midnight deafening waves of explosions, bangs, whizzing and sounds resembling machine-gun fire rock the air all at once. Many compare the experience to being in a war zone. Above squares and parks the skies are filled with rockets and other fireworks. The noise lasts for about an hour, but sporadic bangs can be heard throughout the night and into the next day.
Except for those last few fireworks, New Year’s Day is quiet, and the streets are blanketed in burnt dark red wrappers from the approximately 65-million-euros-worth of fireworks that went up in smoke the night before.
The Netherlands, with its long coastline on the North Sea, has a temperate maritime climate. This means mild winters, cool summers and much more rain than its inhabitants would like. There are, of course, magnificent snowy days in the winter and great days for the beach and barbecues in the summer, just not enough of them.
During the last three decades of the twentieth century the average temperature during December was 4°C. The last very cold December days of that century were in 1995, when the average temperature was -0.9°C. Even January is no longer the ‘month of ice’ it used to be. According to the Dutch Meteorological Institute (KNMI), only the occasional January has been really cold – notably in 1996 and 1997, when the Elfstedentocht was last held in the Netherlands. This is an eleven-town ice-skating marathon that only takes place when all the lakes and canals in Friesland freeze solidly enough to support thousands of skaters and spectators.
This gradual warming of Dutch winters over the course of the twentieth century is attributed to the uncommon strength of the western winds. These allow the warm sea temperature (7°C) to influence the winter temperature, resulting in rainy winters instead of snowy ones. Gales are frequent on the coast, particularly in autumn and winter.
The flat countryside makes the Netherlands a rather windy place at all times of the year. This is why, starting in the Middle Ages, the Dutch built so many windmills to pump water from the low-lying areas and reclaim land from the sea and the rivers.
And the summers? The average temperature for July tends to be 17.4°C, but summer weather is extremely changeable. Warm and dry one year, cool and wet the next. Or warm and dry this week with temperatures from 22°C to 26°C, and suddenly cool and wet the next, with the thermometer barely topping 16°C.
The result of this is that the Dutch are pretty obsessed with the weather. Whenever the sun comes out, they go out. Leisure activities tend to be planned – and changed – around the weather, with museum visits suddenly dropped in favour of bicycling trips, and vice versa. When people come back from a holiday, the first thing friends and colleagues ask is not if they had a good time, but if they had good weather.
A note: though cool and wet summers immediately trigger the global warming debate, the KNMI says that Dutch summers have been like this since before the Middle Ages.
Holland or the Netherlands?
Why is the country sometimes referred to as Holland and sometimes as the Netherlands? The official name of the country is the Netherlands, meaning ‘low lands’; a country where 60% of the people live below sea level. Then why is this country so often referred to as Holland? The answer to this question lies in its history. Several centuries ago, the province of Holland (now the modern-day provinces of North and South Holland) was economically the strongest of all the Dutch provinces, and the one from which virtually all foreign trade originated. Most of the Dutchmen that foreign traders dealt with were Hollanders, literally from Holland. Hence, when talking about the Netherlands, this became the accepted way of referring to the country and its people. Over the years both names have come to be accepted, although the official name, of course, remains the Netherlands.
Though it is generally accepted that the Netherlands is referred to as Holland in many different languages, some Dutch people, especially those not from North or South Holland, do not like the habit. This website used to use ‘Holland’ instead of ‘the Netherlands’ to make page and menu titles shorter, but we received emails from Dutch visitors who objected.
While it is of course no longer the case that the provinces of North and South Holland are the most advanced, it is true that most businesses are still located in these two provinces and Utrecht. The area as a whole, which includes Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam, is commonly referred to as the Randstad (an idiomatic term for referring to the conurbation as a whole). But the rest of the Netherlands is just as well developed and many international businesses are based there. The infrastructure (road, rail, water and telephone) is excellent throughout the country.
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