Those bangs you heard already in November? The ones that made you think for a split second that a gun battle had broken out in your Dutch neighbourhood? Those bangs are the reason I’ve always looked forward to a Dutch New Year’s Eve as much as a toenail extraction. You just know it’s not going to be fun, but it remains to be seen just how painful the whole experience will be.
During my first New Year’s Eve here in the Netherlands I seriously wondered what I had let myself in for moving from England. A cosy evening with friends in the local pub to see the New Year in was quickly a distant memory. Instead barricading myself in my home seemed to be the sensible thing to do. Military tactics were needed to leave the house anytime between 10 am and 2 am on the 1st January, to avoid becoming a casualty of the barrage of endless fireworks let off in the Dutch streets around me.
Not that leaving the house on New Year’s Eve was part of the planning during the first few years of my Dutch adventure. Where we lived nothing was open on the evening of the 31st of December. Nothing at all. Not until after midnight. The bars were closed. The restaurants were closed from dinnertime onwards. Presumably so all the horeca owners could join the stampede of firework fanatics on the streets, reopening their venues once their supply of fireworks had been exhausted? In any case, there was little choice but to be a part of or listen to the war zone outside.
Fast forward fifteen years and things have changed. Up until 2014 Dutch law forbade the public use of fireworks on any day except New Year’s Eve between the hours of ten in the morning and two o’clock the following morning. So every year on the 31st of December at 10 a.m. on the dot the bangs started. At first it was like the percussion section of an orchestra, slowly warming up. Within ten minutes it sounded like war had broken out.
From then on groups of youths (and some adults come to think of it) scour the neighbourhoods looking for targets. And by targets I mean things to blow up with the fireworks they are carrying on their backs in rucksacks. It’s why mailboxes are boarded up outside of apartment blocks. It’s why you’ll not find a public bin within a ten kilometre radius of a town. It’s the reason you have to squeeze your Christmas cards one at a time through a tiny slit in the orange post boxes the entire month of December.
New Year’s Eve in the Netherlands means blowing things up. And to be honest, even after living here for so many years, I don’t get it. The national news on the 1st January is always led by how rustig, or how not so rustig, the New Year celebrations were. It’s about how many people lost an eye/fingers/facial features (delete as appropriate) the night before. It’s about which gemente (council) suffered the most damage (calculated in financial terms and in human terms), how many arrests were made and how many police and ambulance personnel were manhandled or abused. How is that a fun way to see in a new year?
It’s a part of Dutch life that baffles me. I see people who for the other 364 days of the year are law-abiding citizens but suddenly believe no normal laws or rules apply with the turn of a new year.
Why? Why is vandalism suddenly acceptable because fireworks are part of the equation? I have no answer.
Two years ago we fled the country and went away for New Year’s Eve period. Whilst we were away we received a text from a neighbour to say that a firework bomb had gone off at 5 a.m. in our street. There was a lot of glass damage. There was shock. Thankfully no one had been hurt but our reason for going away had been justified.
But back in the here and now changes have been implemented. As of last year fireworks are allowed from 6 p.m. onwards, but stopping people setting off fireworks outside of these times is not really a policing priority. New for last year too were firework free zones in the bigger cities and towns. There are also increasingly more organised firework displays to discourage public use.
I, for one, am happy that there have been changes to the law. There is a loud public voice that insists enough is enough. However, changing the culture around New Year’s Eve ‘celebrations’ may take a little more than the legal measures already implemented last year, and it will certainly take more time. But it’s certainly a start; last year was a huge improvement on the years that preceded it.
I wish you all a happy New Year, but most of all, I wish you a safe passage into the year 2017.
This article was written and previously published on expatsHaarlem in 2015.