Fireworks and Chaos – New Year in the Netherlands
The Dutch Winter School normally starts in January, just at the beginning of the new year. Meeting these people from all over the world, I’m interested in why they’re in the Netherlands and why they are studying Dutch.
These conversations are really fun for me. I get to know the people who are normally studying online.
It’s also fun to talk about culture and how they view the Netherlands. Just after New Year’s Eve one thing sticks with a lot of foreigners: the way the Dutch celebrate New Year’s Eve.
Reactions to this are:
- A great party!
- Dutch go nuts
Normally the Dutch are known for not being too extravagant, maybe even a bit stingy and sober. This all changes on 31st December.
On the last day of the year the Dutch go crazy, especially with their fireworks.
So you might be from a country where there are fireworks. That is not so special. Generally there is a big show in the centre of a city.
In the Netherlands though anyone can buy fireworks and light them themselves. This means that it sometimes feels like a war zone. Because everywhere there are fireworks all around.
And not only at 12 o clock, but also on the days before. Officially you are allowed to light your own fireworks from 31 December to 1 January between 18:00 and 02:00.
But because fireworks are allowed to be sold on the last three days of the year, the displays start then!
Where does this tradition come from?
Let’s start from the beginning. Fireworks originally come from China, as a weapon, but also as a basis for fireworks for celebrations. The New Year’s celebration was one of those parties where fireworks were lit. With the noise, evil spirits were chased away.
The gunpowder ended up in Europe, according to some, thanks to Marco Polo.
As in China, there was a tradition in the Netherlands for making a lot of noise during the transition from the old to the new year, a custom that can be traced back to medieval times. It seems logical that, over time, these two traditions were combined.
In the 1970s fireworks became an increasingly important part of New Year’s Eve. The number of fireworks sold increased every year. Although in other European countries fireworks are also lit during New Year’s Eve, the Dutch are the largest consumers of fireworks.
The liberal way of looking at this is comparable to the way soft drugs have been ‘legal’ since the seventies.
The Dutch, stingy?!
As some might say, the Dutch are economical and very careful with their money. But not on that day!
In 2019, 77 million euros worth of fireworks were purchased by private individuals in the Netherlands. All blown up in the sky in just a couple of hours.
You may know that it’s not all good and fun. In recent years more and more people want to change this tradition. There are a couple of reasons why people want to stop the use of fireworks.
The loud noises and the unexpected loud bangs throughout the day and the smell and environmental pollution caused by the smoke that they release and the firework debris left behind.
The groups of experts who want to ban this tradition grow. For example eye doctors. They see the firework injuries and the fear of being hit by fireworks grows every year. There is also the material destruction and vandalism connected with (illegal) fireworks.
And last, but also really important to changing the laws, is the disruption of public order, including violence against emergency workers.
Although this isn’t new. In the 16th century, the city council of Amsterdam tried to ban ‘New Year’s Singing’, but without effect. In the 18th century, the city council of Dordrecht banned bonfires for fear that the largely wooden city would go up in flames. New Year’s Eve remained a noisy feast that was celebrated together in the streets.
If there is one new tradition in the Netherlands, it is the annual discussion around the holidays. A discussion in which the very much desired togetherness is hard to find.
Fireworks and flares will probably be banned, although that’s not been confirmed. A total ban is unlikely.
The discussion about a possible ban on consumer fireworks has similarities with the ‘Black Pete’ debate. Fireworks are considered to be a typically Dutch tradition. And a big group of Dutch people think the tradition should remain almost entirely or largely the same, while critics believe that fireworks are outdated and that adaptation or abolition is desirable or necessary because it bothers another part of the population.
3 Other things to do
The typical Dutch things to eat are oliebollen (balls of oil). You can compare an oliebol to a doughnut. Fried dough, usually filled with raisins. At 12 o’clock everyone shakes hands or kisses one another.
Many people wouldn’t even think about doing this. Still, thousands of people run into the ice-cold North Sea on the first of January.
The Dutch have liked to do this since the sixties. Not only on the beach at Zandvoort (where the tradition started) but also in a lot of different places.
To start the new year fresh, they say.
- Toast in the New Year with champagne
Champagne is also a must at the turn of the year. We love to toast the New Year with champagne in our glasses! For the children, who obviously can’t have any real champagne, you can also just open a bottle of ‘Jip and Janneke champagne’!
- Carbide shooting
Something that comes really close to fireworks, and which is totally legal, is called carbide shooting. With milk cans or paint cans and carbide, young people celebrate the new year with huge bangs. Carbide-shooters often fire their milk or paint cans at the same time.
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Bart de Pau
online Dutch teacher & founder of the Dutch Summer School & Dutch Winter School