When I lived in Amsterdam, ten years ago, I was informed by a gruff Dutchman that Christmas was an English thing, as he glared disapprovingly at my baubles which I was trying to hang in the foyer of the cable TV station where I worked. My step-ladders barely wobbled as I pointed out that Christmas owes a lot more to the Germans than the Victorians. I decided not to mention that Charles Dickens virtually created the notion of a White Christmas, and went on to highlight the uncanny similarities between the Dutch and the Germans. This led to much angry spluttering and indignant red faces, due to the Nazi occupation of Holland in the Second World War, a fact which seemed to have slipped my mind. Amazingly.
A crowd gathered in the canteen and I decided to make my position even more precarious by reasoning that since Holland was essentially a little bump on the coast of Germany, the Dutch should logically love Christmas too, since they were basically German. Things became rowdy and I was led away to safety. A large man in a pin-stripe suit shouted, ‘You waste your time and our money!’
Now, forgive me, but I really think that was exactly the reason why I moved to Amsterdam in the first place…
You try and spread a little Christmas cheer… Now, of course, ten years later and the Dutch have finally realised what a money-spinner the Yuletide season really is, and embraced it with a ferocity which blows my hair back. The landscape has changed in other ways too. In my time, Amsterdam was cool. It was a cultural hub and a gay mecca, the liberalism of the hippy afterburn a perfect foil for the staunch conservatism which flowed beneath the surface. Both the European City of Culture and a beautifully preserved Bohemian paradise.
The quiet stillness of the city grew from the freedom which made the place famous again in the late 1980s. Everything was available to those who wanted it, and so there was an absence of tension on the streets. As those freedoms are eroded gradually, Amsterdam appears to owe more to Blackpool or Las Vegas, as the crooked streets bow to right wing politics and religious dogma. Feral stag parties roam in search of drugs and prostitutes and every other shop is a Head Shop or a souvenir emporium.
Returning to Amsterdam after such a long time, I see the Dutch as proud and efficient, and very similar to the English in many ways, which did lead to a few cultural clashes in my younger days as a hothead. They embraced ecological issues decades before the rest of the world. Culturally and aesthetically, this is an unforgettable holiday destination.
It was strange, not being home for Christmas. I’ve always threatened to turn Pagan and celebrate an entirely secular Festival of Light, particularly when we have to endure the Christians earnestly celebrating the birth of The Baby Jesus on The Wrong Day. There’s something about being patronised by Cliff Richard that makes me feel slightly unbalanced. I pictured a beach or somewhere like Dubai, where you can guarantee a distinct lack of tinsel. But to spend the festivities in Amsterdam is to be in the middle of a Christmas card: it doesn’t get any prettier. To wander round on the 25th aimlessly just taking in the overwhelming beauty of the place is the most Christmassy thing you can do.
We took a short scenic walk from the city centre to visit my old flat in Haarlemmerplein, for old times’ sake. It is of course a complete accident that I ended up living above a bar with a big Heineken sign. I would like to point out that I don’t endorse Heineken: due to European export laws, Dutch beer is much stronger than the fishy water they slop across the bar in Olde Englande. Please drink responsilby.