All over the Netherlands, people are gearing up for Queen’s Day, the one day every year that the rules are relaxed and the otherwise straight-laced Dutch let down their hair.
Village squares and city centres turn into huge open air markets. Children play musical instruments in parks and on squares to earn a bit of extra pocket money. Every inch of the pavement is marked “occupied” by hopeful one-day traders. Bewildered tourists find walking even a short distance almost impossible due to the sheer numbers of revellers dressed from head to toe in orange – the Dutch national colour.
Quick Queen's Day facts
The Queen's Day tradition first began as Princess' Day on 31 August 1885 on then-Princess Wilhelmina's fifth birthday.
After the death of King Willem III in 1890, the festivities on ‘Queen's Day’ developed into a children's feast, although Wilhelmina only became reigning queen on her eighteenth birthday in 1898.
Not to spoil the popular event, the coronation was put off until 6 September.
During the German occupation of the Netherlands 1940-1945, Queen's Day celebrations were banned.
In Schellingwoude, Orange Committee members were so afraid of German reprisals that they destroyed their archives and membership lists.
The date for Queen's Day changed to Juliana's birthday on 30 April, after she succeeded her mother in September 1948. The event became televised in the 1950s.
When Queen Beatrix took the throne in 1980, she announced Queen's Day would continue to be celebrated on her mother's birthday. Her own birthday was not very suitable as it is on 31 January.
Every year the royal family visits one or two Queen's Day events somewhere in the Netherlands.
On Queen's Day 2009, a motorist drove through the crowd watching the royal family visit in Apeldoorn, killing seven bystanders. The driver of the car also died of his injuries.
The Crown Prince Willem-Alexander's birthday is on 27 April.
Across the country “Orange Committees” (clubs for royal family enthusiasts) have put hours into organising their local event. Just outside Amsterdam in my little village of Schellingwoude, preparations are almost complete.
Since January, the eleven committee members – including myself – have been busy coming up with new children’s games, painting signs, gathering props, organising food, selling advertising, writing and distributing the Queen’s Day newspaper, collecting annual contributions, recruiting volunteers... you get the idea.
It’s a time-consuming hobby, but it is also a lot of fun. And in my case, as a foreigner, it has been a very good way to become part of my adopted country.
In Schellingwoude, the day will begin when the church bells ring and the flag is hung from the bell tower. In the old days, people sang the national anthem while the local band played, but today hardly anyone seems to know the words. The parade through the village has disappeared too.
Instead, children will dress up and show off their costumes in the village square-turned-Sprookjeswoude – or ‘magical forest’ – this year’s theme. While the jury decides which fairy tale character has earned a coveted Queen’s Day medal, the countdown will begin for the release of 100 orange helium balloons. Each balloon has a “return-to-sender” postcard; the child whose card is sent back from the furthest destination wins a prize.
Looking silly is part of the fun
Then the games carrousel will begin – in keeping with our magical theme of course. Clutching a scorecard, the kids will rush to be first in line to help Little Red Riding Hood collect provisions for grandma, but watch out - it looks like the big bad wolf got to grandma’s house first! Then they’re off to see who can knock down one of the seven dwarfs. Children will even get the chance to throw soft balls at their parents standing behind a cut-out of the Emperor Without his Clothes.
Looking silly on Queen’s Day is part of the fun. Biting cake suspended on a string is a well-known Queen’s Day tradition, but in Schellingwoude, it will be a chance for kids to get sticky fingers as they decorate slices of sponge cake in Hans and Gretel’s Sweetie House. And, as if that’s not enough, there is a prize for everyone in the Treasure Trove.
In the afternoon, the games will make way for market stalls and the pace will slow down. Everything and anything will be up for sale: old books and discarded toys, outgrown clothes and unwanted knickknacks of every description; if you’re lucky you might find a bargain.
Meanwhile preparations will be made for a village barbeque. Old neighbours will uncork the wine and draw up a chair, newcomers will be invited to join a table. Friendships – and community – will be formed.
For me that’s really what Queen’s Day is all about. It’s not an outburst of patriotism, it’s not even about the popularity of the royal family. It’s about a sense of belonging. For one day, everybody is the same in Holland. Bright orange and barmy.