In Alkmaar it's a tradition that on Christmas Eve crowds of people gather at Grote Sint Laurenskerk, a huge, 15th century French Gothic style church just a few blocks away. There was a stage setup inside and groups of people moving in and out all evening as each performance changed. The floor is composed of large, black stone slabs with beautiful art carvings in most of them, and two world-famous organs, the Van Covelens (also known as Koororgel, 1511) and the Van Hagerbeer or Big Schnitger (1636), were played during the service.
Hundreds joined in on 12 songs during the service, with readings and a long sermon by a priest/pastor spaced in between the singing. The entire service was in the native language, so we were singing classics like "Silent Night" in Dutch, ha! A friendly guy with his son sat next to me. He couldn't speak English and I'm still not speaking a whole lot of Dutch, yet we actually enjoyed a great conversation and each others company.
The whole thing was quite warm, casual and very community oriented, which was good for me not knowing anyone here. It all finished up around midnight, then I rode back home on my bike across the canal in the moonlight. People were still out enjoying a popular restaurant called “De Studio,” as I passed by. It was all so awesome, unfamiliar and at the same time strangely familiar.
I spent New Years Eve here in Alkmaar, too; informal celebrations on the streets were going on all day. They're very big on fireworks in Holland, as it turns out. It's the one day a year that the police allow people to use just about any type of fireworks you can imagine -- all the ones that we know of as being illegal for personal use in most places at home -- and it is incredible.
Loud bangs and exploding rockets all day, then it all let loose at midnight! For several minutes it was so smoky that I literally couldn't see out the window of my apartment, where I had taken refuge and was having a late night snack. Earlier in the evening I had taken a bicycle ride around town, and was surprised to see that not much was going on. A few restaurants were open for what looked like private parties, but not De Studio where I had planned to hang out.
Everyone came back out into the streets at midnight. They partied on for several more hours; even small children were lighting off firecrackers. It was incredible just how much explosive powder was detonated. There didn't seem to be any drinking or problems, though (you rarely see a policeman on the streets here), just one heck of a lot of "red" paper from the fireworks.
After struggling with trying to understand what my instructor was saying to us in Dutch class and still coming up with nothing, I decided on a different plan of attack. I realized that I was not having any problem with the text books or the writing exercises. So I started concentrating on the homework assignments, went right on through that night's work and on into the following chapters.
Went back to class Thursday night. Started coming up with answers to all the questions before anyone else. Even corrected my instructor on something she stated and pointed out an error in the text book on a logic exercise we had to cypher, ha! I don't mean to make a big deal out of it, but I really needed a boost in confidence at that point to continue and luckily got it.