The New Year's Dive And Other Odd Dutch New Year Traditions
What would you do to welcome the new year: Blow up a milk churn with carbide? Dive in a freezing sea wearing only a swimsuit and an orange hat? Collect all the Christmas trees in your street to burn them in a big bonfire? Blow a very large horn? The Dutch celebrate New Year on December 31 and 1st of January. Some New Year traditions are bound to exactly those two days, others take place in the weeks surrounding the turn of the year mostly between Advent and Epiphany. And although the Dutch do have traditions in common with other nations like waiting for the clock, toasting with champagne, lighting fireworks and having a great time at a party, they also have customs that may seem very odd to the foreign eye.
New Year's Dive
This tradition was introduced by a swimming association in the sixties: the brave members of the club plunged into the freezing North Sea on New Year's Day. Canadians may be familiar with this event since they have a similar tradition dating back to the 1920s.
Over the years taking the New Year's Dive has become a popular and massive event (10,000 divers!) that is sponsored by Unox, a big food manufacturer famous for its traditional Dutch pea soup and smoked sausages. They provide the divers with flashy orange pompom hats and gloves. Some bathers add to their funny looks by dressing up like all kinds of odd things. Some even skinny dip. Everyone that has taken a serious dive is given a certificate and a cup of steaming hot pea soup to warm up again. Watch it here!
Christmas Tree Hunting
The older generation still has vivid memories of the now prohibited Christmas tree hunting. This was a popular event in the big cities like Utrecht, Den Haag and Rotterdam.
In the days between Christmas and New Year people would leave their used Christmas tree on the sidewalk. In less refined neighborhoods people would simply chuck the tree out of the window onto the street. Gangs of little boys roamed the streets to collect the trees and hide them in some secret place like a garage until New Year's Eve. Every street had its own gang of tree hunters and they would fiercely fight each other for a tree. These fights often ended in true little battles with bricks flying through the air. Some gangs would even raid upon other gangs and steel their trees.
At New Year's Eve every gang took the trees form their hiding place and piled them up in their street to light a big bonfire. Not only trees ended up in the fire but also old furniture and tires. The street with the biggest bonfire had won.
Since the battles for trees often got way out of hand, Christmas tree hunting is now forbidden. Instead, communal bonfires are organized by the municipality and people bring their own Christmas tree to peacefully enjoy the big bonfire together.
Midwinter Horn Blowing
This is one of the oldest traditions that may even date back to pre–Christian times. Its origin is uncertain, but many believe that it is a reminiscence of Germanic midwinter solstice feasts at which big fires were lit and lots of noise was made to chase off evil spirits. Nowadays many scientists believe however that the tradition was not introduced until the 19th century.
A midwinter horn is made of birch, alder or willow. The mouthpiece is usually made of elder wood. The horn is so large that while blown it reaches the knees or even the ground. When blow it produces an eerie, melancholic sound. Usually the same melody known as D'oalen roop –the old call– is blown over and over again. To get an idea of what it looks and sounds like go and watch this short video about a typical midwinter horn blowing event.
Nowadays midwinter horn blowing is only practiced in the Northeastern part of the Netherlands, especially in the Twente and Achterhoek regions and some isolated towns in Groningen.
This is a far noisier and dangerous legacy of the Germanic winter solstice feasts than blowing the midwinter horn. It is a modern interpretation of making a lot of noise to chase away spirits. It originated in rural areas around World War II when both milk churns and carbide (used for lighting bike lights!) were easily available.
The idea is that you put some carbide in an empty milk churn, moisten it with a little water after which you hammer the lid back on so it fits very tightly to the churn. The chemical reaction between the carbide and the water produces acetylene which is highly flammable. The gas is then ignited delivering a very loud explosion when the lid is pushed out of the churn. See some shooting in action here.
Carbide shooting is still very popular in rural areas in Eastern parts of the Netherlands. Since it can be very dangerous and every year people get seriously injured, carbide shooting is prohibited in most towns. You can get a permit however for New Year's Eve if you comply with the safety regulations imposed by the municipality.
Not all Dutch venture themselves in these extreme New Year traditions, though. Most families spend New Year's Eve watching TV with their family and consuming large amounts of oliebollen (meaning oil balls). They look and taste a bit like doughnut balls and you are supposed to eat them with powdered sugar. At twelve o'clock New Year wishes are exchanged, champagne is drunk and fireworks are lit.