Millions of Dutch people dressed in orange flocked to celebrations around the Netherlands Tuesday in honor of a once-in-a-generation milestone for the country's ruling House of Orange-Nassau: after a 33-year reign, Queen Beatrix abdicated in favor of her eldest son, Willem-Alexander.  

At 46, King Willem-Alexander is the youngest monarch in Europe and the first Dutch king in 123 years, since Willem III died in 1890. Like Beatrix before him, Willem-Alexander has assumed the throne at a time of social strains and economic malaise.   

Although the Dutch monarchy is largely ceremonial, he immediately staked out a course to preserve its relevance in the 21st century.  

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Princess Beatrix of Netherlands, left, embraces her son, Dutch King Willem-Alexander and his wife Queen Maxima at the balcony of the Royal Palace in Amsterdam. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

"I want to establish ties, make connections and exemplify what unites us, the Dutch people," the freshly minted king said at a nationally televised investiture ceremony in Amsterdam's 600-year-old New Church, held before the combined houses of Dutch parliament.  

"As king, I can strengthen the bond of mutual trust between the people and their government, maintain our democracy and serve the public interest."  

Hopes for the new monarch are high.  

For most of the 2000s, the country was locked in an intense national debate over the perceived failure of Muslim immigrants, mostly from North Africa, to integrate. In response, politicians curtailed many of the famed Dutch tolerance policies.  

More recently, this trading nation of 17 million has suffered back-to-back recessions. European Union figures released Tuesday showed Dutch unemployment spiking upward toward 6.4 per cent. That's below the EU average, but a 20-year high in the Netherlands.  

"I am taking the job at a time when many in the kingdom feel vulnerable and uncertain," Willem-Alexander said. "Vulnerable in their work or health. Uncertain about their income or home environment."  

Amsterdam resident Inge Bosman, 38, said she doubted Willem-Alexander's investiture would give the country much of an employment boost.

"Well, at least one person got a new job," she said.

Special bond with Canada

Canadian Gov. Gen. David Johnston, who is in Amsterdam for the transfer of power, noted Canada and the Netherlands share a special bond.

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A festive young woman awaits an appearance by the Dutch royal family in Amsterdam's Dam Square. (Erin Boudreau/CBC)

The Dutch royal family, including Beatrix, lived in Canada during the Second World War and Canadian soldiers played a key role in the liberation of the Netherlands from the Nazis, he said.

"The emotion and the attachment is just extraordinarily strong," Johnston said.

Though, tellingly, one of Willem-Alexander's first diplomatic missions as king will be to visit the country's largest trading partner, Germany.

While many are skeptical that the new king can make a difference where politicians have failed, the celebrations provided a welcome change from the humdrum of everyday life, and the popularity of the royal house itself is not in doubt. A poll commissioned by national broadcaster NOS and published this week showed that 78 per cent support the monarchy.

"I think [Willem-Alexander] is just like his mum — honest, wants to do a lot for his people inside the country and also outside the country," said Ron Pols, who was attending celebrations in Amsterdam.

Willem Alexander's popularity has been steadily rising since his 2002 marriage to an Argentine commoner, Maxima Zorreguieta.

Around 25,000 supporters thronged Amsterdam's central Dam Square Tuesday, hoping to catch a glimpse of the new king or the departing 75-year-old queen, now known as Princess Beatrix.

Millions more watched on television as King Willem-Alexander, wearing a fur-trimmed ceremonial mantle, swore an oath of allegiance to the country and the constitution.  

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Flanked by her friends, a woman makes an enthusiastic "W" symbol with her hand -- for the new King Willem. (Erin Boudreau/CBC)

Earlier, the new king gripped his mother's hand and looked briefly into her eyes after they both signed the abdication document in the Royal Palace on Dam Square.  

Beatrix appeared close to tears as she then appeared on a balcony decked out with tulips, roses and oranges, overlooking her subjects.  

"I am happy and grateful to introduce to you your new king, Willem-Alexander," she told the cheering crowd, which chanted: "Bea bedankt" ("Thanks Bea.")  

Moments later, the generational shift was enacted symbolically. Beatrix left the balcony as King Willem-Alexander, his wife and three daughters — the children in matching yellow dresses and headbands — waved to the crowd.  

The highly popular Maxima became Queen Maxima, and their eldest of three daughters, Catharina-Amalia, became the Princess of Orange, the first in line to the throne.