December in the Netherlands means ferrying the children to school in near-darkness and evenings that draw in early. The temperatures take a nosedive and there’s every chance that snow will form a blanket over this little land. But a Dutch December certainly doesn’t spell doom and gloom. Winter in the Netherlands can be a lot of fun – if you are determined to embrace the colder, grey days and the dark evenings.
Here are 5 ways you can turn December into a month of gezelligheid and create a treasure trove of memories at the same time.
1. Embrace the Darkness
Candles and lights are everywhere at this time of year and with a little imagination you can make family time very special indeed whilst the dark evenings close around you.
Make lanterns or glass pot candleholders and take an evening walk in your neighbourhood, or simply let your children grab torches and go for a stroll after dinner. Children love the excitement of exploring in the dark.
Alternatively, ask your children to help you decorate a tree in your garden or your balcony with twinkling, festive lights.
Eat a family meal by candlelight. This is something that has become a bit of a tradition on winter solstice for my family, a way of marking the year’s shortest day. You could also read a story together by candlelight. Little faces light up when the candles come out.
Or you could venture out and attend one of the many mesmerising kaarsjesavonden in the region: Gouda, Zoetermeer and Voorburg all have an evening where the shopping streets and shops are lit up with hundreds of candles.
2. Embrace the Cold
The Dutch are ice-skaters extraordinaire and you certainly can’t beat them, so join them. When the temperatures drop to below freezing, listen carefully and you can hear the sound of millions of ice skate blades being sharpened. Grab some ice skates for your children and yourself and head to the nearest frozen canal or pond and get skating. You could also use a garden chair to help you around the ice if skating really isn’t your thing – head to a frozen body of water and you’ll see what I mean.
If winter doesn’t quite play ball and the canals don’t freeze solid, head to one of the many skating rinks that open or appear at this time of year.
Similarly, a little snow doesn’t deter the Dutch from going about normal business. Many (but certainly not all) will ditch their bike for a sledge. The dunes are a place with toddler-sized hills for sledging. My children’s excitement is immeasurable when they are pulled to school and back sitting on a sledge. Head for the hills for some sneeuwpret! (Easier said than done here I know).
You can also keep warm by gathering your family around an outdoor fire basket, the children sipping hot chocolate and munching on festive biscuits and the grown ups indulging in a little Gluhwein, whilst roasting marshmallows over the flames. Gezellig!
3. Embrace the Winter Feeling
Instead of shutting down during the cold, dark days of winter, places like the Efteling embrace winter warmly like a good friend. The Dutch theme park transforms into a winter wonderland at this time of year; there is a skating rink and a cross-country skiing course (langlaufbaan) as well as live entertainment and of course hot chocolate in abundance.
Similarly the Spoorwegmuseum in Utrecht transforms into a winter station paradise from the 20th December, with music, a skate rink, a carousel and a chance to toast marshmallows outside on open fires.
There are also numerous kerstfairs across the Netherlands to enjoy too – like this one at Marienwaerdt.
4. Embrace Your Family
Cold days, dark evenings and a month of festivities leaves lots of days for quality family time. Make the most of snuggling together and watching a Christmas movie; read stories together on a mound of cushions and blankets or share tales from your own childhood winters or Christmases. Have a family games evening.
Bake mince pies, pepernoten or New Year treats with your children. Eat oliebollen together. Make and decorate a gingerbread house – and watch as your children demolish it piece by delicious piece.
Use this time of year to take silly photos, get your children behind the lens whilst you don a Santa hat. Be creative, have a little fun.
5. Embrace Good Causes
December is a perfect month for having a good clear out. It’s the season of giving, and receiving. Encourage your children to sort through their toys and donate those they no longer play with. Clear out wardrobes and donate clothes to worthy causes. Donate food to the local food bank.
Show your children the meaning of this season, and get your children thinking about who they could help at this time of year. Maybe a family friend or relative has just had a baby and would welcome a home cooked meal from your family. Maybe your children could clear the snow from an elderly neighbour’s path.
December is a month when animals can benefit from good turns too – for example by making food holders, fat balls or cakes for the birds.
There are lots of ways you can help at this time of year and get your children more involved in a less commercial side of the festive period.
Embrace December – and squeeze every last drop of gezelligheid out of the last month of a year.