While folks from America to Australia carol about 12 days of conspicuous consumption involving a menagerie of creatures, Dutchies celebrate Christmas for months. In the darkest, coldest, wettest season of the year, festive lights illuminate bridges and streets. Aromas of seasonal treats permeate the air. Ice rinks appear in public squares. And the whole town gets down in a dozen different ways:
1. Sinterklaasavond (Sinterklaas Eve). Typically, Sinterklaas (who is NOT Santa Claus) chugs into Amsterdam from Spain in November. Onboard his steamship are the controversial Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes)—helpers outfitted in 17th century slave garb, hoop earrings, ruby lips and black-face makeup once used to caricature blacks. While some (including the UN) see the Pietens‘ get-up as regressive racism, many Dutchies cling to the notion that Black Pete originated in medieval times, centuries before black-face makeup cartoons. Others insist their faces are dirty from chimney soot. To smooth feathers, Kaas Pieten (Cheese Piets), Bloemen Pieten (Flower Petes) and Rainbow Petes have appeared around town.
2. Oliebollen. Nothing is more seasonal than olieballen in Amsterdam. Literally “oil balls,” these deep-fried treats appear at pop-up stands at the first sign of winter. Sometime flecked with raisins or currants and sprinkled with powdered sugar, they’re precursors of the American donut. Poffertjes—small, fluffy pancakes with a light, spongy texture—are a yummy variation. Another seasonal option is an appelflapje, filled with apple slices and topped with glaze. Follow your nose to these repositories of sphere-shaped sweets emanating aromas of apple and cinnamon.
3. Holiday Markets. Holland may not rival Germany for Christmas markets, but it has its contenders, especially in the south, where Valkenburg becomes a subterranean Christmas village complete with markets, a Santa’s Village and holiday choirs, all in an underground grotto oozing with seasonal charm. Find more Yuletide fun in Magical Maastricht near the German border, where a festival of light is open through December. In Amsterdam, the Neighbourfood Market, Pure Markt and new De Hallen are great sources for hand-crafted gifts and international edibles.
4. Ice Skating. Long before Christmas, ice rinks sprout up in city squares, tempting tourists to stumble around on rental skates and locals to practice twirls and jumps, hoping to race on frozen canals as temps drop in January. More ambitious skaters head to an outdoor skating rink, indoor ice hockey and figure skating rink at Jaap Edenbaan, which offers skating to ’80s disco tunes on Saturday nights. While the waterways froze solid enough to permit safe skating on city canals in 1997 and 2012, and the Elfstedentocht (11 Cities Tour) 200km skating marathon took place in Friesland in those years, no one counts on this seasonal highlight.
5. Lights, Camera, Action! From the illuminated faҫade of De Bejinkorf and the giant Christmas tree in Dam Square to Winter Wonderlands in Leidseplein, Rembrandtplein and Museumplein, Amsterdam lights up at Christmas. Even De Wallen—the city’s most infamous Red Light District—sports Christmas lights in colors other than red during the winter holidays. Through January 18, 2015, the Amsterdam Light Festival showcases illuminated artworks in the Plantage neighborhood on a canal cruise and Illuminade walking route.
Holiday lights also add cheer to pedestrian shopping streets like Kalverstraat, Leidsestraat, Haarlemerstraat, the Negen Straatjes (Nine Little Streets) and upscale P.C. Hoofstraat.
6. Kerst (Christmas Day) and 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.
7. Oud en Nieuw. (Old and New) is how Dutchies refer to New Year’s Eve—a time to party hard at dance parties, costume shindigs and quirky theme events throughout the city. Many are listed in iAmsterdam’s compilation of New Years parties. On Oud en Nieuw, public squares are jammed and there’s a city fireworks extravaganza set against the Scheepvaart Museum and VOC ship at Oosterdok. The revelry typically includes a New Years Eve sing-along as fireworks explode over the Amstel River.
8. Christmas concerts. Churches throughout Amsterdam have Christmas Eve and Christmas Day concerts. Both Het Concertgebouw and Het Muziektheater offer December 24 programs. At Westergasfabriek, Winter Parade brings its mix of theater, dance, poetry, art, music and culinary delights to a 120-meter table accommodating 500 guests. The 30th edition of World Christmas Circus will be at Royal Theatre Carré through January 4, 2015, presenting winning acts from festivals in Monte Carlo, Paris, Peking and Moscow.
9. Christmas Mass. Holiday services and choral programs are offered at De Beginhof, a serene oasis in the center of Amsterdam founded by the Beguines, a group of 14th century women who practiced charitable work outside monastic boundaries.
10. Museum hopping. The Rijksmuseum, Anne Frank House, FOAM photography museum and Torture Museum are among city museums that will be open Christmas Day. Families might opt to spend the day at Artis Royal Zoo, Madame Tussauds or NEMO, an interactive science museum that’s fun for the whole family.
11. Movie Screenings. Amsterdam’s gorgeous Pathé Tuschinski, an art deco gem between the Munt Tower and Rembrandtplein, will present Annie and other films on Christmas Day.
12. Laugh it off. Comedy Café and Boom Chicago offer stand-up comedy shows throughout the holiday season. On December 31, welcome 2015 with dinner, show and humor at a fast-paced New Years Eve at Boom show. Gelukkig nieuwjaar!