Science - November 24, 2005

Q&A / Short Christmas holiday?

December is nearly here, along with the festive season and holidays like Christmas and New Year. Wageningen University takes two weeks off. Student Pengpeng Li from China wonders why this holiday is so short in the Netherlands as it is a time for the whole family to get together.

Have you come across things here in Holland that puzzle you? Send an e-mail to wispr@cereales.nl and you may find the answer in the Wispr the following week.
Some may find two weeks short, but it is relatively a long holiday for Dutch people. Working people are lucky if they get just one week off. The Netherlands has seven public holidays each year, the lowest amount of all countries in the European Union. Public holidays and leave add up to an average of 33 days off per year, not a lot either compared with other European countries. Austria comes top of the list with 43 days off, while the Irish are at the bottom with an average of 29.

Students at Wageningen University are free for two weeks at Christmas. This is possible because the amount of time students are supposed to spend studying is based on European Credits. A student has to earn 60 points of European Credits each academic year. One European Credit is equal to 28 hours of work. Calculations are based on a 40-hour workweek, which leaves ten weeks over for leave. Most of these are taken during the summertime, when the University is also closed for about 8 weeks.

Besides public holidays there are a number of celebration days which are not official public holidays in the Netherlands. A good example is Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas), probably the most popular Dutch family celebration. This Catholic feast commemorates a third-century saint, and the Dutch celebrate on 5 December, the day before he died. In the evening, families get together and give each other gifts, including handmade ‘surprises’ and accompanied by humorous poems with a message for the recipient.

Young children are told that this holy man still lives in Spain and are convinced of his existence. Each year he comes to the Netherlands, where he gives gifts to those who were good during the past year. It is said that those children who were naughty will be taken away to Spain in a sack. Of course this never happens: it’s all part of the tradition.

A walk through the Hoogstraat makes it clear that the tradition is alive and kicking. There are festive lights everywhere, Sinterklaas songs playing and special treats like pepernoten, marzipan, chocolate letters and other sweets shaped in Sinterklaas figures in shop windows. The whole country is captivated by the magic of the old man with his long white beard wearing a red cape and a mitre on his head, often accompanied by a group of black painted men in colourful clothes, called Zwarte Pieten.

Despite its popularity, Sinterklaas is not a public holiday due to Protestant cultural domination in the Netherlands. Five of the seven of the public holidays do stem from Christian roots: Good Friday, Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Whitsun and Christmas. New Year’s Day is also a public holiday, as is Queen’s day, 30 April.

Changes are on the horizon however. With an increasingly multi-ethnic society in the Netherlands, some argue that there should also be holidays for people of other religions than Christianity. The State Secretary of economic affairs is campaigning for the right of non-Christian employees to have two days off on days related to their religion or specific culture, such as a day off at the end of Ramadan or for the Chinese New Year.

Laurien Holtjer

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