© Cor Snabel
The life of the Amsterdammer in the 16th/17th century was not easy, they had to work hard, they often did not feel secure, death was everywhere, and most people did not get old. They needed some entertainment to brighten up this hard life every now and then. Many feast-days were celebrated intensely, cheerfully, rudely and loudly.
Winter was the time for feasts on a regular base; the highlight was Shrove Tuesday, before the Lent. On corners and squares big fires were made, magicians and jugglers performed in the streets and inns, men wore woman's clothes and women man's clothes. Others wore masks and went into the streets singing and shouting, they indulged heavily in drinking, food and sex. The masks and the darkness made everybody anonymous and reckless, but the next day everything was back to normal.
The Dutch words "kerkmis" and "kermis" are almost identical, the first means "church-mass" and the second means "fair/carnival". The origin of these words is in the same sequence. The fair probably originated from the annual commemoration of the consecration of the church, in this case the Old Church, around 1330.
The annual fair was in September; it meant fun, traveling artists, like fire-eaters, jugglers, acrobats and tightrope walkers, who walked from steeple to steeple. The "Dam" was full of market-stalls with the unusual and luxurious articles, all kind of delicacies, but also the usual vegetables and fish.
One of the highlights was the showing of the "freaks", giants and dwarfs, women with a beard or with shark's skin, living skeletons and dried mermaids.
In 1734 an American Indian was showed in the inn "De Fortuyn" as a real Indian prince, with feathers and all.
But not only at the annual fair looking at the "freaks" was a form of entertainment. Even the insane in the "Dolhuis" could be watched if an admission fee of one penny was paid. In the week of 19-27 September 1695 at least 2730 paying visitors must have been watching these poor devils in their cells. Even the prisons, the "Rasphuis" and the "Spinhuis" were a profitable attraction.
On "Kopper-Maandag" the Monday after "Drie-Koningen" (6th January) the Amsterdam guilds celebrated a kind of Labor Day. A procession of representatives of the guilds and the "Schutterij" (civic guard) in their colorful uniforms with polished arms, the Mayors and other magistrates were an attraction nobody would miss.