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. The cup had a little compartment in the middle (the basement, a metaphor for the womb) that would open when a liquid was poured into the cup, releasing a little silver baby figure (little Henry). In rich families this liquid was usually a special liquor consisting of Spanish and Sicilian lemons, Cherry esprit, Bourbon Vanilla, Cardamom, Cinnamon and Bulgarian Roses. The cup was passed around and while drinking everybody would cheerfully say Hansje in den kelder well knowing that a future family member had been announced.

The tradition was adopted by the middle class during the 18th century albeit with cheaper ingredients. The silver cup was replaced by an engraved glass and the liquor by ordinary or cinnamon wine. Around the 19th century the tradition had died out.

Once the baby was born and mother and child were healthy and well, it was time to celebrate. The drinking of kandeel has been popular from the 17th century until the early 19th century and it is still drunk occasionally at births. Kandeel was a home brewed alcoholic drink made of white wine, lemon, cloves, cinnamon sugar and lots of yolk. In the past, the father of the newborn had to brew the kandeel in company of friends and family. He had to wear a silk hat decorated with his wife's ribbons whilst stirring the drink with a stick of cinnamon. This ritual was thought to protect mother and child from evil spirits.

Once the kandeel was stirred enough it would be served in a glass with a little spoon, and a toast was made the health of mother and child. Rich families would even have a special kandeel serving set consisting of a carafe and engraved glasses. Serving kandeel at a baby shower is not common anymore although in some regions it is still done. Few people make the kandeel themselves, since you can buy it nowadays at a good sorted liquor store.

Anise and good food
To help the woman in childbed recover she was given special food and drinks. Especially under the poor it was common for neighbors to each bring the new mother a little good nourishing food (soup, meat, eggs...) she could not afford herself but that she certainly needed to regain strength.

It was thought that anise would help the womb retract and induce the production of mother milk. Therefore the new mother was served kraamanijs (anisette). Originally it was a awful tasting drink composed of anise, valerian, chamomile, star anise and wormwood. Later, when the taste improved it was also served at the baby shower. Along with the anisette visitors would get something sweet to eat. In a time when sugar was a luxury this was a real treat. Adults would get a sweet pretzel (its form being a symbol of the infinity of life). Children were treated to a slice of white bread with sugar.

The well-to-do people had a more luxurious version of these treats: beschuit met muisjes. A beschuit is a typical Dutch round rusk (read my article about beschuit learn more about them and how to bake them). Muisjes (meaning little mice) are colored and sugared anise seeds. This rich man's version of a birth treat survived until today. Virtually all Dutch treat family friends and the school class of bigger siblings to beschuit met muisjes whenever a baby is born. If the baby is a boy the muisjes are white and blue, if it is a girl they are white and pink and when a royal child is born special orange muisjes are produced and sold for a limited time.

Long ago people thought that during labor evil spirits could take possession of mother and child. To keep these demons outside, the door was locked or tied with an apron band during labor. The first nine days after the birth when the mother was confined to her bed, the apron band was wrapped around the door knocker to reduce its noise. Over time the apron band became a signal in its own right: Hush! a child was born behind this door! In the 17th century the apron band had evolved into an elaborate piece of red silk and lace especially made for the occasion called a kraamkloppertje. If a white piece of paper was attached to it the baby was a girl, otherwise it was a boy.

As long as the kraamkloppertje was on the door (six to eight weeks) the father was relieved from night shifts if he had any and no city-messenger, creditor or tax-collector was allowed to knock on the door. With the coming of the door bell in the 18th century, kraamkloppertjes got out of use. First they would be placed behind the front window to announce a birth. Later they were replaced completely by a piece of paper stating some details about the newborn. In the 19th century putting an announcement in a local newspaper had become quite common and is still done today. Richer families would send out cards to friends and family, the so-called geboortekaartje. Nowadays sending a geboortekaartje is commonplace. The door and front yard are still being decorated whenever a baby is born, but the adornments have become bigger and usually more humoristic. Usually a huge hardboard stork or baby with the newborn's name on it is put up in the front yard, alongside a clothesline with balloons and baby clothing in pink or blue.