Dutch patriotic fervour, nationwide street market and mass party rolled into one
The numbers are swelled by foreign tourists, there to sample the unique, cosy atmosphere of this Dutchest of holidays
‘Koningsdag’ (King’s Day) is a Dutch national holiday and is held on 27 April - unless it falls on a Sunday, in which case it is held a day earlier. It features arguably the biggest collective street market and party in the world. King’s Day replaces the earlier Queen’s Day following Queen Beatrix's abdication and succession by her son, Willem-Alexander, in 2013.
The cities throng with huge crowds of people, often wearing bright orange, who may be there to pick up a good bargain from the many street stalls or just to party at one of the live music events. The numbers are swelled by foreign tourists, there to sample the unique, cosy atmosphere of this Dutchest of holidays.
On this day only, it is ‘vrijmarkt’ (free market), so anyone can set up a street stall and no-one needs a licence to play music in public. The local council usually designates certain streets for the market and some people wait in line for days to reserve a favourite location.
Stalls selling all kinds of second-hand items, from old toys and comics to large electrical appliances, fill the streets. Children sit on a carpet with their wares spread around them. Shops set up stalls outside their premises and pubs sell small, foaming glasses of pils from outside taps. All kinds of exotic food are available from kiosks and stands.
Live music abounds with bands and DJ systems seemingly at every corner. Among the stalls, amateur musicians of all ages play various instruments with a hopeful hat in front of them. Once the children have wearily made their way home, the adults take over and parties can last long into the evening.
The King (accompanied by his consort Queen Máxima and other members of the royal family) traditionally makes a royal visit1 to two towns during the day, listening to children’s choirs or accompanying local dignitaries on boat processions around the canals. Often he will drop in at a ‘randomly chosen’ house for a chat with ordinary people. Dutch tricolours hang from every flagpole and the vivid orange many wear on the day is the traditional colour of the Dutch royal family. An orange-coloured aperitif, ‘oranjebitter’, is drunk and other orange-coloured cakes and delicacies are also available on this most patriotic of days.
However, the overall success of the day depends largely on the weather. With a little sun, an enjoyable, carnival atmosphere fills the streets but if it rains, the market stalls are transferred to hastily arranged school halls or community centres. Even though the bargain-hunting, drinking and partying may carry on indoors, the atmosphere is sadly much diminished.It remains to be seen if the new King Willem-Alexander and his Queen, Máxima, will establish new elements in the traditional agenda outlined above. As a younger, more outgoing personality than his mother - the previous monarch Queen Beatrix - the chances are that he will.
This day marking the current monarch’s birthday is no ancient, traditional event. It was instigated by Queen Juliana shortly after the second World War and celebrated on her birthday. When the previous monarch, Queen Beatrix, ascended to the throne in 1980, she wisely kept the date the same, considering her own date of birth, 31 January, as falling in too cold a time of year for this day of patriotic festivities.
With the ascension of Willem-Alexander to the throne, for the first time there is a King’s Day as all the previous monarchs that celebrated it were women. This patriotic day at the end of April is now a national institution and remains the most exuberant day of the year for the normally rather reserved Dutch.
1It has always been a day for fun and peaceful exuberance but the Queen’s Day celebrations in 2009 were suddenly dampened by tragedy in the town of Apeldoorn. A man drove his car into the crowd at high speed in an apparent attempt to ram a vehicle containing members of the royal family. He failed to hit his target but took seven lives, including his own, in the attempt. Most Dutch people hope that this horrific event was a one-off and that the congenial character of the day will not suffer as a result.