Christmas in Amsterdam is truly a season of celebration, whether or not you celebrate the day itself in its traditional, religious sense.
The Dutch holiday season started weeks ago, on 14 November, with the arrival of Sinterklaas and all his Zwarte Pieten (Black Peters). The story says that naughty children will be whisked off to Spain by these helpers of Sinterklaas, but there were no signs of missing children on the day of the parade. The Pieten received far more attention from the throngs of children than did the Sint himself, perched atop his white horse (perhaps this was due to the fact that they carried candy and cookies, which they gave out to the children by the handful!).
The celebrations continued on the weekend of 5 December, when Sinterklaas (originally the holy day of Sint Nicholaas) is celebrated each year. On the eve of the 5 December, the children leave their boots by the fireplace, hoping to wake up to find them filled with sweets. On the day itself, families gathered to exchange gifts and (traditionally) insulting poems, and eat lavish holiday meals.
For visitors to the city, who are more used to the Anglo-American Christmas held on the 24 and 25 December, there is till plenty of fun left to be had. Although the majority of Dutch people have adopted similar traditions of gift exchange and family celebrations during this time, many businesses remain open. Tourists are a welcome sight in the city any time of year, and businesses have learned to cater to the many that choose to spend their Christmas holidays here.
If you find yourself in the city this Christmas, the following are a few suggestions to help you pass the time and incorporate a little Dutch culture into your holidays.
Museumplein is turned into a Christmas Square every year, boasting a market and craft-making displays perfect for passing an afternoon. There is also an ice rink which is open well into the evening. Christmas lights have been up since November, and an evening stroll in any direction from the brightly-illuminated tree in Dam Square can prove a pleasant one, especially through the Leidseplein and its surrounding area or towards the Jordaan, which is full of cosy cafes and unique shops. The Red Light District has Christmas lights of its own (not just red ones!) and seems to never shut down.
Several of the churches around Amsterdam are offering seasonal concerts, both on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Sint Nicolaaskerk (www.muziekindenicolaas.nl), for instance, has free services featuring Gregorian music. The concerts are at 21:00 on 24 December, and 10:30 on 25 and 26 December. Museum Amstelkring, a church located on the top two stories of a canal house in the heart of the Red Light District, is offering Christmas Eve masses at 20:00 and 22:00.
Several museums will be open on Christmas Day. The Rijksmuseum, Anna Frank Huis, FOAM (a photography museum/gallery) and the Torture Museum (www.torturemuseum.nl), are all open, but may have shorter hours. Artis Zoo and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum are open all year, and may be good options if you are travelling with children (although much of the zoo might be cold, there are enclosed and heated displays).
The Pathé Tuschinski is one of the few cinemas open on Christmas Day, and is offering a special screening of The Wizard of Oz at 10:30, as well as several other films throughout the day. The Concertgebouw (www.concertgebouw.nl) is offering special classical Christmas concerts, on 24, 25 and 26 December and will cost from €13-75, although reduced-price tickets may be available last minute.
As for food, many restaurants and cafés will be open. There is a good site (www.diningcity.com) that lists those offering special Christmas menus, usually at a set price. It is a good idea to make reservations, as some may close their doors early or serve a limited number on that night. Some options not listed on the site are: Tasca de Lisboa (www.tasca-de-lisboa.nl), La Storia Della Vita (020-623 42 51), and Osaka (www.osaka-amsterdam.nl). Otherwise, the more tourist-oriented areas such as the Damrak, the Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein should yield a number of options for the hungry traveller, as will hotel restaurants.
For something a little different, the Comedy Café (www.comedycafe.nl) is offering a four-course Christmas meal and stand up comedy show on 25 and 26 of December. There are two shows on the 25, at 21:00 and 0:00, and it will cost €60 for the dinner and show (if you just want the comedy show, it will cost €20). Holland Casino (www.hollandcasino.nl) is also open until 03.00, in case you are in need of some early morning entertainment after a full day of culture and great food.
Check local papers and websites for opening hours, and ask at hotels/hostels for other options. Things are often advertised only in windows or on small signs, so walking around in your first few days in Amsterdam is a great way to know what’s going on. And of course, always follow the locals.