The holiday season in the Netherlands is officially over. I say this not because it’s approaching the middle of January and the festive lights are down, but because I witnessed an enormous fire in which hundreds upon hundreds of Christmas trees were burned. No horrible mistake was made. No bureaucratic oversight lost track of a gas can, flint, and tinder. The only thing this Wicker Man-style effigy was missing was Nick Cage in a bear suit punching a woman in the face. Oh, and it was publicly supported and officially sanctioned by Amsterdam’s government.
Back to that in a moment. The holiday season started oddly. Liz was back in the US for the two weeks before Christmas and I talked to my cat to the point where catnip was no longer an escape. Julia also lost interest in catnip. Christmas itself was weird in as much as it was my first in a European city. Our friends Nick and Rachel hosted dinner on Christmas Eve, we all wore a wig, and I sported a very rapey mustache. Christmas day was at our apartment, I made eggs, and all our friends were secretly thankful not to have to deal with their respective dickhead cousins (not you, Chris). To cap the night off, I had a very fancy Westvleteren 12.
New Year’s was more strange. Fireworks here are illegal all year, except from 10 am on Dec. 31 to 2 am on January 1. But don’t be fooled, you’ll be scared shitless for several preceding days. You’ll be even more scared if you’re like me, a dog. My heart was racing from Dec. 29 until the early morning hours of 2012. Julia, a cat, was more peaceful sitting in the apartment listening to the numerous explosions than I was. I hate to admit I’m a sissy, but I guess I am. Every time a firework went off, you could find me curled up in a fetal position in the corner.
Early in the morning on New Year’s Eve I went to buy some groceries. A young lad lit an explosive. Bracing for the explosion, I saw only green and then red sparks and then a pleasant silence. Convinced of the hilarity of these scamps, I chuckle to myself and get on my bike. Calmly pedaling, enjoying the brisk air, I see a plastic bag floating in the wind. I think how beautiful it is and I keep riding towards home. Then, suddenly, I hear a loud noise. It’s an adorable puppy yipping away. A few feet later, I get startled by a loud noise. Even with all the emissions standards here, a backfiring exhaust is terrifying. Finally past all the commotion, I set off for a relaxed breakfast. Unsuspectingly alarmed by a homeless man shouting, Phew, I gather myself again. Then I promptly crap myself when the peaceful red/green firecracker turns out to be a quarter stick of dynamite. It’s blast shatters my bowels and makes my heart seize. Thanks kid, you’ve killed an unrecognized, unheralded, and undeserving national hero, of Micronesia.
All day long I dreaded going outside. In fact, all day long I dreaded hearing the sporadic IEDs going off outside. I knew I wasn’t in Kabul, but did I really?Every time my brain told me to be a man, my good reason and heart palpitations told my brain to go to hell. The remaining daylight hours were spent trying to steel myself against the bike ride I knew I’d have to make later on.
Unlock rear wheel. Breathe. Unlock front chain. Breathe. Mount bike. Firecracker, wince. Repeat wincing. All of Amsterdam seemed to be in a frenzy of pyrotechnics. On average It’s not terribly shocking. I empathize. In fact, I’ve spent a big portion of my adolescence setting off illegal fireworks. Take a common firework that shoots into the air and explodes. If you break off the part that sticks into the ground and light the fuse, you have a terrifying unguided missile that seemingly chases the nearest target. I’m not proud of this, nor is it particularly fun, but I’ve done it. A lot. Empathizing doesn’t imply liking, right?
The party we went to was very nice and at 11:50 pm we all ascended to the roof deck. My jaw dropped. In the US, you grow accustomed to big events being accompanied by big fireworks displays. You expect to be wowed by 10-15 minutes of sheer extravagance. Satisfied, you finish your champagne and head home. In Amsterdam, you walk up the stairs to the roof deck and are assaulted from all sides. Everywhere you look you see fireworks. In every direction you look there are good, not great, explosions. You raise your glass, kiss your partner, and wish everyone a Happy New Year. But it’s not over. After 90 minutes of continued explosions, I was getting tired of being anxious. Riding home was equally joyful because children and hooligans were still blowing things up.
The smell of burning sulfur, the haze of smoke, and large smoldering masses set to the soundtrack of constant but infrequent explosions makes you thing of Platoon. But don’t be dumb, you’re in Amsterdam and there’s no war. If you’re impressionable and stupid like me though, you can convince yourself of anything.
The holiday season is capped off on the first Sunday of January. You’ll see children and adults dragging trees to a central square in Holland. In Amsterdam, people flock to Museumplein with hundreds of Christmas trees. All these trees lead to two huge piles of dried out trees. They’re dry for a good, weird reason. Watering trees in the Netherlands may or may not be a crime against humanity. The most common tree comes with a wooden cross nailed to the bottom. It makes a lot of sense for stability, less for watering. These dry twigs are piled 20-30 feet high. Then they’re set on fire. The next few hours are spent feeding the fire with Christmas trees. Weirdness aside, it’s beautiful. Pine burns super fast, making the fire billow and roll. I’ll spare you the terrible imagery and just put some pictures below. The live band was festive. The free Chocomel was delicious. The enormously tall Dutch people with their uncommonly tall children on their shoulders made views tough to come by. If you’re an expat in Holland, take shelter during New Year’s and make sure you see this weird, holiday rite.