While Amsterdam is beautiful all year round, December is an excellent time to visit- not only for the diminished crowds of tourists but also for the beloved celebration of Sinterklaas.
Although Santa Claus and Sinterklaas share many similar characteristics, there are several key differences between the two. In mid-November, Sinterklaas arrives into Amsterdam by boat as part of the biggest Sinterklaas parades in the world. He’s accompanied by hundreds of coal-smudged helpers named Pieten. These medieval looking costumes used to lean decidedly more towards blackface before being changed as recently as 2018 to soot covered companions. The parade of Sinterklaas continues on to land where he rides a white horse through the city streets as he and his helpers distribute candy to thousands of onlookers, hosting performances, and wrapping up with a speech to the masses.
The actual feast of Saint Nicholas falls on December 6th, so Sinterklaas seems to mostly just hang around for a few weeks, gifting sweets to well-behaved children before the main gift-giving celebration on the evening of December 5th.
My visit to Amsterdam fell on the latter half of this tradition and while I was abstractly aware of Sinterklaas, I was pleasantly surprised to be so involved in the celebrations even as a tourist. Many shops were giving out enormous chocolate letters with other purchases, and while walking around at night I was offered a brand new thermal shirt by some cheerful store employees. “It’s Sinterklaas,” they said, shoving the bundle into my hands. It is, in fact, an excellent thermal shirt and I am filled with holiday spirit every time I wear it.
Bright holiday lights were out in abundance which helped to balance out the dreary wet weather while I was there- I even shelled out a few Euros to go on a Light Festival cruise. The Light Festival is something between a neon light art show and a celebration of holiday decorations, but mostly- I think- a reason to get more tourists on a boat cruise despite the cold weather. On my cruise, I was provided a warm blanket and a choice of hot chocolate or mulled wine to take the edge off the chill. While the boat ride is the best way to see the lights, they are still visible by land- walking along the canals is free!
I was delighted to be a part of these winter celebrations and it’s early enough compared to my usual traditions that it’s easy to experience both Sinterklaas and Christmas without missing out on any activities from either.