12 Ways of Christmas, Amsterdam-Style

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Amsterdam turns into a winter wonderland at Christmas.

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:

Sinterklaas chugs into Amsterdam in November. Photo Credit: Tom Jutte, www.tomjutte.tk
Sinterklaas chugs into Amsterdam via steamship in November. Photo Credit: Tom Jutte, http://www.tomjutte.tk

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.

Oliebollen stands pop up throughout Amsterdam in winter.
Oliebollen stands satisfy your seasonal sweet tooth.

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.

The Neighbourfood Market is a great place to shop for holiday gifts.
Neighbourfood Market is a great place to shop for holiday gifts and international edibles.

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.

Amsterdam's new Andaz Hotel hosts a holiday market showcasing vendor products.
Amsterdam’s posh new Andaz Hotel hosts a holiday market showcasing vendor products, from cheese and ice cream to ossenwurst.
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Winter ice rinks sprout up in Leidseplein and Museumplein.

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.

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The lighted facade of De Bijenkorf, Amsterdam’s luxury department store, is a holiday showpiece in Dam Square.

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.

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The Amsterdam Light Festival showcases illuminated artworks.

Holiday lights also add cheer to pedestrian shopping streets like Kalverstraat, Leidsestraat, Haarlemerstraat, the Negen Straatjes (Nine Little Streets) and upscale P.C. Hoofstraat.

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A giant Christmas tree presides over Dam Square.

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.

Het Concertgebouw presents a Christmas Eve program.

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.

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Pathé Tuschinski screens Christmas Day films.

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.

Boom Chicago offer stand-up comedy shows throughout the holiday season.
Boom Chicago presents stand-up comedy shows throughout the holiday season.

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!

5 comments

  1. I visit Amsterdam for the first time soon and was concerned about the short daylight ours until I was told about the Dutch aptitude for good lighting. The photos on this blog are just beautiful! Can’t wait to get there.

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  2. Hi Melissa! This is a really neat post. I’d never heard about Sinterklaas, but there’s a pretty great episode of the Office that must parody him — about Belsnickel, who is also NOT Santa Claus! And I’m completely convinced that I need to try ollieballen. Something that I wonder about this whole idea of intense, ongoing Christmas celebrations in European cities like Amsterdam is what people from other religions (who don’t celebrate Christmas) think of this time of year. I was raised a Jew, but my mom’s side of the family celebrates Christmas, so I still have plenty of the proverbial Christmas spirit… all the same, seeing big inflatable Santas and Christmas lights up months before the holiday makes me feel a little weird. I guess I try to understand it more as a winter-y celebration, but walking through packed Christmas markets filled with merchants hocking overpriced chocolates, sweaters, and ornaments doesn’t always sit right with me. Do they ever feel that way to you? Don’t get me wrong — I like Gluhwein and chocolates as much as anyone else. Anyway, just my 2 cents.

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  3. All your posts are written so beautifully and eloquently. Your blog is magic not only because of the fact you are a very talented writer but your posts and topics are extremely interesting and captivating, especially for Amsterdam lovers and travelers in general! I have read my fair share of guide books on the topic of Amsterdam but none have given me an understanding quite like this blog. I will reiterate here that I adore your writing style, and I love how you can be so fun and interesting yet feel so professional too. This blog is a hidden gem and will be sharing it with anyone who has an interest in Amsterdam. Amazing blog.

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  4. Great points about celebrating Christmas the Amsterdam style. Amsterdam is on my bucket list this year after reading this informative blog my wife and I would love to visit Amsterdam during Christmas season this year 2016.
    What appealed to us is the fact that Amsterdam celebrate their Christmas season for several months. Roughly when do they start the actual celebrations?

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