Post Holiday Traditions

Trip Start Apr 15, 2003
Trip End Sep 01, 2011

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Flag of Netherlands  ,
Wednesday, January 7, 2004

One week after New Year's we've learned some more interesting tidbits about holiday traditions here that we thought we would share.

We had a theory that since Christmas trees are not put up until after Sintaklaas has come (December 6) that they might stay up longer. However, that does not seem to be the case - at least not by much. Although there are still a few trees in windows, beginning on New Year's eve Christmas trees started "hitting the curbs". Chris actually witnessed a tree being unceremoniously tossed to the curb from a first floor (that is a second floor in the US) window. These trees are often extraordinarily dry and in some cases seem to be devoid of any remaining needles - just empty branches. Also many appear to be nailed to two 2x4s at right angles perpendicular to the trunk - a wooden base that appears to be a stand and would prevent any effective watering of a tree.

When Melanie asked her colleagues at work whether people watered their Christmas trees, she was told "no". Although the trees are sometimes placed in a stand that has a small bowl for water (approx. 6" diameter is what the colleague illustrated with his hands), everybody agreed that watering really didn't do very much good so nobody bothered. They did say, however, that it is important to get the right kind of tree or the experience of a naked tree without needles will result. How different is this from the U.S. where we become paranoid that the house will burn down if the tree doesn't have a fresh cut and if we forget to check the water level for a day??

Related to this, we thought we read in the Dutch newspaper that there was a large bonfire of Christmas trees on the Museumplein. This seemed incredible since it would be comparable to having a Christmas tree bonfire on the lawn at Kingwood Center in Mansfield, or in the middle of the Museum Campus in Chicago, or on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The Museumplein is a fairly large, heavily utilized open grassy area surrounded by several of the big museums. It always has people there and is within the city center - a very unlikely place for a bonfire of Christmas trees. Obviously, our Dutch must not be coming along as well as we thought.

Again, Melanie checked the facts with her colleagues. Sure enough, there really was a bonfire of Christmas trees on the Museumplein. It was considered safe because the people burning the trees had applied for a permit to do the burning. Besides, she was told, it is tradition and would be impossible to stop, so it is better to allow it in a controlled way. Apparently, the year before in Amsterdam-Noord (the northern part of Amsterdam - behind and across the water from Central Station) a bonfire got out of control. People were throwing all sorts of things - including 2 stolen vehicles (presumably driven, not thrown) - onto the fire. Fights broke out and the police were called in. This year, no permits were given for bonfires in Amsterdam-Noord.

Upon further conversation it was learned most older children (12-16 years old) spend much of their time out of school during the holidays collecting Christmas trees that have been tossed out and dragging them to an open field, polder, or other area, and creating bonfires. This is especially common in the villages and more rural areas. We also learned that the biggest bonfire actually happens on the beach on New Year's eve. This one also includes material beyond Christmas trees. Undoubtedly, fireworks are there as well.

Speaking of fireworks and the pastimes of 12-16 year olds - apparently the youngsters are the likely source of the fireworks we've been hearing go off during the last week. Along with collecting and burning Christmas trees, these yungin's make a pastime of shooting off fireworks. But, there's more. Like children anywhere, it gets a little competitive. Melanie's colleagues told here stories from their childhoods when they would create smoke bombs out of PVC pipe packed full of sparklers and of contests where old metal milk cans (the big ones that were used to store milk on dairy farms) were converted into explosive devices that would shoot the lid 100 meters or more down the field. There would be contests to see whose milk can lid shot the farthest and all sorts of schemes to make the shooting noise as loud as possible.

Separately, we've decided that the "Bring your own fireworks" type of New Year's celebration encapsulates many things Dutch.
-- First, there is no municipal display because none is needed since everybody brings there own. Even when it comes to fireworks, they "Go Dutch."
-- Second, safety is not nearly as important as giving people freedom. It is the responsibility of individuals to take care of their own safety. There are public campaigns warning of the poor air quality surrounding "Oud en Nieuw" and of the nasty accidents that can occur from firework misuse. Every year people die and/or are maimed in accidents involving fireworks. But nobody will sue. It is thought that if you are going to use fireworks you must take care to do so responsibly. It doesn't really matter that people are shooting them off all around you and that they are hard to avoid. If you can't be safe, don't go out. If you go out and get hurt, too bad.
-- Third, the whole setup allows people to break the rules in ways defined in the exception to the rule. This is so typically Dutch. Here's how it goes. . .
The rule is: Fireworks are illegal.
The problem is: Everybody will set them off on New Year's anyway.
The solution is: Create an exception.
The exception is: Fireworks are legal only during the week or so surrounding New Year's, then they are illegal again.

In this way, people who want to break the rule only at the permitted times are not really breaking the rule! Most things somehow work something like this here.

Another example of rules and the exceptions: Chris went to the post office for his first mailing of the year and learned that the postage rates had changed. This was disheartening not only because it meant shipping his merchandise would be more expensive, but also because many of his packages already had the old postage amounts affixed, so a change in rates meant a lot of extra time at the post office. When Chris mentioned this, the response was: 1) the rates change the first of every year, so he should have anticipated this, followed by: 2) well, it really doesn't matter because the new rates aren't enforced for the first two weeks of the year anyway. So again the pattern emerges:
The rule is: Postage costs more beginning January 1.
The problem is: Not everybody will know right away and will mail things with the wrong amounts.
The solution is: Create an exception.
The exception is: Don't enforce the new rates for the first two weeks. Everybody's happy!

In the U.S., the first days back at work after the New Year are not fun. People come in a bit depressed to be back in the office. eMail inboxes overflow. Snail mail inboxes overflow. The phone is ringing. All of the work that was left behind 2 weeks prior is still there, plus there are new initiatives requiring attention. OK, maybe the first day is quiet while people catch up, but by day 2 it's back to the dark drudgery of January. It is the rare person who arrives in the office on that first day after the New Year with a smile on his or her face.

In the Netherlands, it is quite different. On the first day back, people smile broadly when they see a colleague for the first time - as if seeing an old friend they've not seen for awhile. They enthusiastically shake hands and offer "Gelukkig Nieuw Jaar" (Literally: Lucky New Year) or "Beste wensen voor 2004" (Best wishes for 2004) or, in Melanie's case, Happy New Year. People spend the morning going from room to room, making sure that they shake hands with each of their colleagues and offering good wishes and luck for the new year. They spend a few minutes in each room chit chatting about the holiday - was it nice, were you with family, did you have snow, where were you for New Year's eve, etc. Essentially, the first 2 hours of the first day back are really pleasant and set a wonderful tone. Melanie entered the office on January 5 with typical American dread and within 15 minutes was transformed into really being happy to see her coworkers, learn more about the normal happenings described above, and ready to face the new year with renewed motivation.

Also, on January 5, the banks' Managing Board held employee receptions at various locations around Amsterdam. Employees were invited to an after work party that was geographically close to their office. Melanie went to the one at the Head Office building where the chairman spoke. There were hundreds of people there (apparently this is an event that is not missed). There was a 3 piece jazz band, pretty lights, beer, wine, oj and tomato juice and really nice light snacks including amazing grilled shrimp. Most people only stayed about an hour and we expect that the whole thing was over by 7 p.m., but it was really nice.

We hope you enjoy hearing about the little ways that things are different here and how they (in some cases) reflect the overall attitudes and culture of the Dutch people. As always, if you would like to receive (or stop receiving) an email whenever we post a new entry, you can subscribe (or unsubscribe) at any time at the top of the page.
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