It’s been a while, but I am now back in the Netherlands. A lot has happened since I last posted. During the two weeks in between leaving Virginia and touching back down in the Netherlands, I officially graduated with my Master in Global Politics from LSE (!), visited friends in London, and spent Christmas with Willem and my family in the Bavarian Alps of Germany and Austria. I may write a post later that details these travels, but I am going to spend most of this post focusing on my first time experiencing a Dutch New Year’s Eve. I had assumed celebrations would be similar to the ones we have in the States, but as always, the Dutch had a few surprises in store for me.
I woke up on December 31st in Tilburg to the sounds of a war going on around me. My first thought when I heard the booms was “Ohmygod someone is shooting a gun VERY close by…I hope when I look out the window I won’t see a body lying on the street.” I then decided that the chances of hearing a gunshot on my street were highly unlikely…heck, the chances of there being a gun within fifty miles of me in a place with as much gun control as the Netherlands is even more unlikely. Willem, of course, thought my initial distress was hilarious. He had neglected to prepare me for my first Dutch New Year tradition: the popular practice of carbidschieten (carbide shooting). I will explain more about this a bit later, because a few hours from then I got to see firsthand what this crazy tradition was all about.
So after the morning’s excitement, we made the two hour train ride to Goor, where Willem’s mom picked us up and drove us the twenty minutes to his house in Neede (Willem’s hometown, in the Eastern region of the Netherlands less than five minutes from the German border), where we planned to spend New Year’s Eve. We had lunch at Willem’s house, while we listened to the Top 2000 song countdown on Dutch radio. This is a well-loved end-of-year tradition in the Netherlands, where Dutch citizens vote on their most favorite songs of all time. Each year, the 2000 songs with the most votes are published in a list, and every song is played in a countdown that leads up to the #1 song, which is played in the final moments before midnight. The list is pretty eclectic, with songs ranging from traditional Dutch songs to American pop, classic rock, and everything in between. The #1 song for this year was….Bohemian Rhapsody!
In the afternoon, we walked to a field on the edge of town where a group of people were watching some men setting off the “carbide cannons” that had awoken me that morning. Carbide shooting is a tradition that supposedly hearkens back to an ancient practice of scaring away demons and bad spirits with loud noises to ensure a positive atmosphere for the coming year.
This is definitely a “don’t try this at home” kind of activity! Safely creating a carbide cannon is apparently as difficult as correctly setting up a controlled dynamite explosion, and requires significant skill to determine the exact second to light the cannon without posing a danger to spectators. To make the cannon, an empty steel milk urn (the kind that are used on old farms) is propped up and a small hole is drilled in the bottom of the can. Then a few blocks of calcium carbide (which is an easily available substance) are dropped into the can, and a small amount of water is added before the lid is tightly replaced. The water causes an immediate chemical reaction with the carbide to produce a gas called acetylene. As the gas begins to escape out of the hole in the bottom of the can, a torch is used to light the gas at the proper moment. Presto, you have created your own cannon! The ignited gas causes a massive explosion, launching the lid off the can and into the air with a sound that can knock out your eardrums if you stand too close. Carbide shooting is actually illegal every other day of the year due to the fact that people get seriously injured every year doing this, but on New Year’s Eve some municipalities (especially in the Eastern Netherlands where the tradition is most popular) allow people to shoot them off as long as they get a permit. Woohoo! Below is a video of carbidschieten in action!
As it got closer to midnight, we left the carbide cannons and got ready to go to the house of a family friend of Willem’s. It is relatively uncommon for the Dutch to celebrate New Year’s Eve like we do in the U.S., with First Night celebrations and city fireworks displays. Instead, most people stay at home or with close friends until the clock strikes midnight. We spent our time cozily counting down the minutes with Willem’s family and friends, sipping drinks, eating oliebollen (a tasty and traditional Dutch NYE treat; they taste exactly like funnel cakes), chatting, and watching TV specials that detailed the events of the past year.
This was all really nice, but I was still slightly disappointed because I thought that by being in the Netherlands I would miss seeing the epic fireworks displays that make this holiday so enjoyable for me. Luckily, I soon found out that the real fun of a Dutch New Year’s Eve doesn’t start until after midnight. We counted down the seconds until the clock struck 12, and then everyone toasted to the New Year. Within a few minutes after midnight, it sounded like a war had erupted in Neede.
If this morning was a skirmish, then that hour after midnight was Gettysburg. I can hardly describe the intensity of the noise that was coming from every possible direction. It was the kind of sound that creates shockwaves that you can feel booming in the pit of your stomach. I absolutely loved it! We rushed outside to watch as every family in the neighborhood set off their fireworks at the same time. And in case you were wondering, these were no ordinary fireworks. I didn’t know where to look, because the entire sky was lit up with exploding lights of pure awesomeness. I was shocked at the kinds of fireworks that were being shot off here (and it is all perfectly legal). These were some high quality rockets, people! Due to fire and safety restrictions back home, there are strict laws in each state regarding the fireworks that are legal. In Virginia, if it’s fun, chances are it’s illegal. Unless you are willing to suffer through the crowds and bitter cold to see one of the fireworks celebrations sponsored by one of the metro areas, you are essentially forced to be happy with poppers and sparklers. That is certainly not the case in the Netherlands!
As much as I love fireworks, the nicest Dutch NYE tradition has to be the practice of wishing all of your neighbors luck in the coming year. While everyone is outside setting off fireworks (or spectating, in my case), it is common for neighbors to walk from house to house, shaking hands and giving each other their beste wensen (best wishes). Once the last sips of champagne had been drunk and most of the neighborhood had exhausted their supply of fireworks, we biked home. I think I can safely say I rang in this New Year’s in a truly Dutch fashion: with a bang!