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Hansje In Den Kelder: Old Dutch Birth Rituals

As in any other culture, in the Netherlands birth was long  surrounded by rituals en superstitions. This is not surprising because giving birth was a life threatening activity. Reason enough to do whatever possible to humor the gods to protect mother and child. In this article we have collected some of the dutch birth traditions during the last three centuries...

Hansje In Den Kelder
Telling out loud that you were expecting a child was challenging evil spirits, at least so people thought in the 17th and 18thcentury. So you had to let family and friends know about the pregnancy without actually saying so. Upper-class families had a nice ceremony for this called Hansje In De Kelder (Little Henry In The Basement). Family and friends would be invited over for a drink. Then a special silver cup was put on the table.

Bargoens, The Slang From Amsterdam

Dutch is all but a uniform language. The many regional variants can differ greatly from each other. Even so much that people cannot understand each other very well when using different dialects. Several years ago, a friend and I were travelling from our hometown in the east to the south of the Netherlands. We shared a train compartment with two elderly ladies who were submerged in a lively conversation.

The whole trip we tried to make out what language they were speaking, and even though we both have a linguistic background, we could not make sense of it. When at a certain point one of the ladies asked us, with a heavy southern accent, whether this was the train station of Eindhoven, it finally dawned on us that we had been listening to a southern Dutch dialect all the time.

Chasing A Hare

Maybe it was a nice sunny spring morning or a stormy autumn afternoon when, sometime in the late 1800s, Cornelis de Haas set sail for the biggest voyage of his life. He left everything he knew behind to seek a new and better life in Australia.When the ship finally arrived, Cornelis reported to an immigration officer and told him his name, in the best English he could. The officer gave him a puzzled look.

Could you repeat that, sir? And Cornelis said it again. The officer gave him another puzzled look. "Haas", said Cornelis. "H-A-A-S, like a hare." He put his fingers on top of his head to mimic a hare's ears. The officer finally smiled and said "Oh, a hare!" and then scribbled down: "Cornelius de Hayr from Sassenheim, Holland." About a 150 years later, one of his descendents started tracing his family tree and got stuck on Cornelis. Understandably, he couldn't find any "de Hayr" in The Netherlands, and nobody knew the name had originally been "de Haas".

What's Cooking: Knieperties

Knieperties (lit. "little pinchies"), also known as ijzerkoeken (iron cookies), are small crispy waffles, typical of the Northeastern part of the Netherlands (especially Groningen, Drenthe, Twente and the Achterhoek). They are called knieperties because they are made by pinching a dough ball with a hot waffle iron. Pinching is called "knijpen" in Dutch and "kniep'n" in Eastern Dutch dialects.

Knieperties are usually served around New Year. On New Year's Eve they are served as round flat cookies and on New Year's Day as little rolls known as "rollechies". The flat version symbolizes the completely unfolded year, and the rolls symbolize the new, still folded year that will slowly unfold over the coming 365 days.

Forgotten Crafts: Dienstmeid

There was a time when virtually every unmarried girl from the lower classes was a maid. And there was a time when every middle or upper class housewife employed one or several maids. In 18th century Holland, maids were almost considered part of the family. They lived in with their employers and were treated almost as an equal. Almost, because even though she would sit at the table with the family for supper and her masters would speak to her kindly (so much that it surprised foreign travelers), she did not have much rights, let alone a salary.

Most maids did not have a room of their own but would sleep in the kitchen or the attic. She was supposed to work seven days a week and would only get time off to go to church every Sunday and to visit her family once a month. She would be paid with food and clothing and an "education" in keeping house. The fact that she could live in, get fed and learn how to run a household that would serve her well once she got married, made the job very popular in spite of the disadvantages. In most cases, she would be better off as a maid than as a burden to her family.

Peace And Exploration

At the beginning of the 1600s the battle for independence had shifted to the Eastern provinces of the Republic and by 1609 a truce with Spain was signed that would last for 12 years. This relative peace gave the Western provinces the opportunity for economic repairs. During the war many Protestant merchants had fled the Southern Netherlands and settled in the Northwestern provinces of Zeeland and Holland. They brought with them an enormous amount of knowledge about trading with and sea travel towards the Orient as well as considerable funds.

At the time, the spice trade was dominated by the Italians over land and the Portuguese and Spaniards over sea. But the Portuguese were weakened by English privateers and the Dutch saw a golden opportunity that they seized. They would go and get the so valued spices from the Orient themselves.

The Toko In Semarang

When researching my own tree I stumbled upon an ancestor named Henri Francois Grivel that seemed to have disappeared into thin air after his birth. I could not find any records on him except for his birth certificate. I had the rest of his family complete. I knew the fate of his parents and his siblings. But nothing on him, and that was nagging me.

Then, the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (Royal Dutch Library) came to the rescue. They have scanned and indexed over a million newspaper pages starting in 1640, and put it all online! When I searched for "Grivel" literally dozens of hits turned up for an Indonesian newspaper from the mid 1800s. Intrigued, I clicked on the hits and to my amazement, they were newspaper ads, placed by my ancestor Henri to promote his shop in Semarang.

Why the Pennsylvania Dutch are actually German

If you research your Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors, you may well find very little about them in the Dutch archives. This is because most of them are actually German. Then why on earth, you may wonder, are they called Dutch?

Today Germany and the Netherlands are two separate countries lying next to each other. We call the people from the Netherlands and their language Dutch, and their neighbors and their language German. However, it wasn't always like that.

What's Cooking: Tulip bulbs

That the Dutch are fond of their tulips is known worldwide. Thousands of tourists come over each spring to see the immense tulip fields in the western part of the country. However, what is far less known is that the Dutch even used to eat them. Yes, you got that right; there was a time when the Dutch actually ate their tulip bulbs. Not because they tasted so great, but simply because there was nothing else to eat.

The period in which this happened was the winter of 1944/1945 known to the Dutch as "Hongerwinter" (winter of hunger). While the southern part of the Netherlands had been freed by allied troops, the North remained occupied by the Germans. In September 1944, Queen Wilhelmina, living in exile at the time, urged the Dutch Railway personnel to go on strike, so as to sabotage the Germans in supplying their troops. The railway personnel obeyed her with disastrous results.

How far is far away?

The other day I hopped in the car with my kids to pay a visit to grandpa and grandma in Holland's southernmost province of Limburg. The trip took us two hours on a smooth, well-lit highway. During the drive, my thoughts wandered off to my ancestors, as they regularly do. I wondered how they would have experienced this trip?

My ancestors from the 1700s probably never made such a trip. They lived, married, and died in Amsterdam, possibly without ever setting a foot outside the city. Traveling to the south of Limburg at that time would have been a huge undertaking, especially if you lacked the money to get yourself a carriage, a horse, or a ticket on a "trekschuit" (horse-drawn barge). If you had to walk the 215 km (135 miles) from Amsterdam to Heerlen, it would take you at least a week. On horseback or by barge you could do it in two or three days.