There’s no denying it’s cold in Amsterdam during the year-end holidays. By November, the trees are bare, down jackets have emerged and tourists have all but vanished. December ushers in the year’s rainiest month, when the sun sets around 16:30 on the December 21 Winter Solstice and doesn’t rise again until nearly 9:00.
Despite cold, wet, short days (or maybe because of them), Dutchies ramp up the gezelligheid (coziness) in cafés and bars. Festive lights illuminate bridges and streets. Stands appear selling oliebollen (“oil balls”)—warm, donut-like sweets topped with powdered sugar or flecked with apples and raisins.
In November, ice rinks sprout up in city squares, tempting tourists to stumble around on rental skates and locals to show off, hoping to race on frozen canals as temps drop into February. While the waterways froze solid enough to permit safe skating on city canals in 1997 and 2012, and the Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour) 200km skating marathon took place in Friesland in those years, no one counts on these joyous events to occur every holiday season.
Turn on the Lights!: De Bijenkorf, Amsterdam’s luxury department store, traditionally launches the holiday season with a light show and tree lighting ceremony in mid-November. Through the New Year, the building’s illuminated facade is a festive backdrop for a massive holiday tree in Dam Square.
The Amsterdam Light Festival showcases illuminated artworks in the Plantage neighborhood on a canal cruise and walking route. Themed “Building with Light,” the second edition takes place November 29‒January 19, 2014. On December 14, shops along Damrak, Nieuwendijk and Kalverstraat stay open until 22:00 for Amsterdam Light Shopping Night, giving procrastinating elves a chance to pick up last-minute gifts.
Sinterklaas Arrives: While the aforementioned sweets stands appear as early as October, Sinterklaas’ arrival ushers in the holiday season in earnest. Typically, he chugs in from Spain on the third Sunday in November, sailing into Central Station on his steamship, accompanied by the controversial Zwarte Pieten―helpers outfitted in 17th century slave garb, gold hoop earrings, ruby lips and black-face makeup once used to caricature blacks in the US, UK and elsewhere. While some see the garb and makeup as regressive racism and as the UN tackles the issue in 2013, Dutchies cling to the notion that “black Pete” originated in medieval times, centuries before black-face makeup cartoons.
Thanksgiving: November 28 may be an American holiday, but expats have options in Amsterdam. The Hard Rock Cafe on Max Euweplein serves a traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings, including corn chowder, pumpkin pie and televised NFL. Hilton Amsterdam offers a Thanksgiving meal with classics like Waldorf salad and turkey with chestnut stuffing. Seasons Restaurant has two seatings for a four-course Thanksgiving dinner, plus a lunch option.
For a more interactive feast, attend a Thanksgiving Day workshop at The Kitchen, a cooking studio where you can cook and eat your creations. Pick up some pumpkin cupcakes at De 3 Graafjes (The 3 Giraffes) café and share them at ABC Treehouse, where €20 buys a feast of turkey, a vegetarian main dish, mashed potatoes, gravy, dressing, sweet potatoes and corn, plus wine, beer and non-alcoholic beverages. Guests contribute starters or desserts.
Sinterklaasavond (Sinterklaas Eve): Just as American children put cookies and carrots by the chimney for Santa and his reindeer, little Dutchies leave treats in their shoes on December 5, hoping Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten will replace them with presents. Chocolate letters are popular, as are peppernoten, kruidnoten and other sweets. Traditionally, families read specially composed poems to each other.
Kerst (Christmas Day) + Tweede Kerstdag (Second Day of Christmas): Kids receive presents from Sinterklaas in early December, but the whole family celebrates on December 25. Tweede Kerstdag on December 26 extends the holiday for another day of shopping, visiting or relaxing.
Oud en Nieuw (New Year’s Eve): Oud en Nieuw (Old and New) is how Dutchies refer to New Year’s Eve. Amsterdammers party hard at shows and events at venues throughout the city on this last festive eve of the year. In Museumplein, thousands gather for a fireworks extravaganza that closes out the old year and ushers in the new.