While folks from America to Australia carol about 12 days of conspicuous consumption involving a menagerie of creatures, Dutchies celebrate the holiday season for months. In the darkest, coldest days of the year, festive lights illuminate bridges and streets. Cinnamon-sweet aromas of seasonal treats permeate the air. Ice rinks appear in public squares. And the whole town makes merry in a dozen different ways:
1. Sinterklaasavond (December 5; sometimes called Pakjesavond or Presents Evening). As in past years, Sinterklaas (who is NOT Santa Claus) chugged into Amsterdam from Spain this month. Onboard his steamship were the controversial Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes)—helpers outfitted in 17th century slave garb, hoop earrings, ruby lips and makeup once used to caricature blacks. While some (including the UN) see the get-up as regressive racism, many Dutchies cling to the notion that Black Pete originated in medieval times, centuries before blackface makeup cartoons. Others insist the Pieten faces are dirty from chimney soot. Whatever the case, good Dutchies receive chocolate letters and presents on Sinterklaasavond; naughty ones are hauled back to Spain for a warm winter. Meanwhile, grownups gather ’round to read sarcastic poems aloud, poking mock-fun at each other.
2. Oliebollen. Nothing is more seasonal than oliebollen 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 sugar, they’re precursors of the American donut.
3. Holiday Markets. Whether you’re looking for a traditional Victorian experience or a trendy food festival, there’s a holiday market for you in the weeks leading up to Christmas. For two weekends, December 5–6 and 12–13, Keukenhof Castle hosts one of Holland’s largest Christmas markets. The 9th edition of Kerst op Keukenhof will transform the magnificent Keukenhof estate in Lisse (about 45 minutes southwest of Amsterdam) into a Dickensian wonderland.
On December 6 and 13, Westergasfabriek presents its Kerst Fair and Funky Christmas Markets, bringing organic farmers, bakers, butchers, chefs, cheese and sausage makers, juice pressers, baristas and other food fanatics together. More organic produce and sustainable gifts will be on offer at the Pure Markt at Amstelpark on December 13 and Frankendael Park on December 20. Other options for last-minute holiday gifts include the Amsterdam Kerst Markt in NDSM-Noord, where a tapestry of small stalls will offer holiday goodies. Similarly hip Amsterdam Roest in the Eastern docklands presents the Avondmarkt (Night Market), an arty evening of shopping, eating, drinking and dancing, with everything from handmade clothes to jewelry, food and drink on offer, from December 18–20. On the same weekend, De Hallen hosts a festive version of its Local Goods Market.
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 the outdoor skating rink at Jaap Edenbaan for skating to ’80s disco tunes on Saturday nights.
5. Lights, Camera, Action! From the illuminated faҫade of De Bejinkorf and giant Christmas tree in Dam Square to Winter Wonderlands in Leidseplein, Rembrandtplein and Museumplein, Amsterdam lights up at Christmas. Through January 17, 2016, works by international light artists will illuminate bridges, canals and buildings during the Amsterdam Light Festival. In 2015/2016, the 4th edition celebrates “Friendship” on the Watercolors Boat Route and Illuminade Walking Route. See the spectacle on an intimate cruise with Rederij Paping Private Canal Tours.
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. Het Concertgebouw presents a Christmas Eve Service on December 24.
9. Cultural Fun. The Dutch National Opera presents Engelbert Humperdinck’s fairytale opera Hänsel and Gretel in December, while The Dutch National Ballet performs The Nutcracker and Mouse King. The Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra aims to transport an audience into a Viennese fairytale with a program featuring arias by Léhar and Johann Strauss Jr. at The Royal Concertgebouw on December 19. 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 returns to Royal Theatre Carré through January 3, 2016, presenting winning acts from festivals in Monte Carlo, Paris, Peking and Moscow.
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 kids of all ages.
11. Tango into 2016. Board The Tango Train for fiery performances and workshops, from December 26– through January 3, 2016. The 2nd edition will feature some 120 hours of dancing in 10 days and nights, in venues throughout Amsterdam.
12. Laugh it off. Comedy Café and Boom Chicago offer stand-up comedy shows throughout the holiday season. On December 31, welcome 2016 with dinner, show and humor at a fast-paced New Years Eve at Boom show. Gelukkig Nieuwjaar!