The Netherlands has many famous cultural sights like the Rijksmuseum or Keukenhof. But one of our legendary tourist attractions is King’s Day. People from all over the world fly in for this yearly Dutch nationwide party. It’s an elusive, 135-year-old national event that is getting increasingly more popular by the year.
Most people have seen the famous pictures of thousands of Dutchies decked out in orange, playing weird games, or partying their red, white and blue socks off. King’s Day (Koningsdag) is a celebration like no other.
But, for some, many questions still remain; what is King’s Day? Why do the Dutch celebrate it? When is it celebrated? And now, because of the measures in place to contain coronavirus, is it possible to celebrate King’s Day at home somehow?
Yes, you can! Buckle up and get ready for a crash course on the most important national holiday there is. By the end of this article, you’ll be singing the Dutch national anthem backward, while frying up some tasty bitterballen with your eyes closed.
What is King’s Day?
It all started with Princess Wilhelmina on 31 August 1885. This might seem like an excessive time-jump, but rest assured that it’s relevant. It was her fifth birthday, and to commemorate this occasion and to celebrate the union of the country, the liberals initiated Princess Day. Thus, a national holiday dedicated to the monarch’s birthday was born.
Wilhelmina’s father, King Willem III, died when she was only ten years old. This unfortunate event turned the fifth edition of Princess day into the first Queen’s Day, as Wilhelmina became queen at only ten years old (with her mother Emma as regent). By 1902, Queen’s Day had evolved into a massive national event.
By the time Queen Juliana (the daughter of Wilhelmina) took over, it was already 1948. Since the national holiday began with the birthday of the queen, Queen Juliana figured it should be celebrated on her birthday: April 30th.
She held a Royal March-Past at Soestdijk Palace, where people could queue up to meet and/or give flowers and presents to the royal family. This queue sometimes went on for kilometers and was always livestreamed on television. As a result, under the reign of Queen Juliana, Queen’s Day evolved into a spectacular day of national ‘togetherness’ and celebration.
Over time and under the reign of Queen Beatrix, the celebration really took became what we know today.
When she took center stage in 1985, she gave the national holiday a personal spin. Though she kept the date the same as her mother’s birthday for the celebration (her own being in September), she completely reinvented the concept of Queen’s Day. Instead of having the people come to her, she would go to them.
During her reign, she visited over 50 different cities during Queen’s Day, which always drew massive crowds and was heavily watched on television.
King Willem-Alexander, who claimed the throne in 2013, made only a few changes to his mother’s recipe. Obviously, since he is a king and not a queen, the day was renamed King’s Day. But he also changed the date. Seeing that his birthday falls on the 27th of April, he figured there was no harm in moving it three days earlier.
What he didn’t realize that this would result in many hilarious situations where tourists showed up at train stations on the 30th of April, decked out in orange and holding a six-pack of beer in one hand, clutching an expired guide to the Netherlands in the other.
The only thing they would run into were local street cleaners, cleaning up the leftovers of King’s Day that had taken place three days prior… Spotting these poor tourists almost became a new yearly tradition!
What do people normally do on King’s Day?
King’s Day has something to offer for everyone. The royal family visits a lucky town in the Netherlands, where a parade and other types of celebrations are arranged.
This is televised and often watched by people who prefer to stay indoors – because outside is absolute mayhem! Parties on the streets, local games, and people setting up impromptu flea markets. King’s Day is the one day a year where people can sell all sorts of things on the street without any legislation needed. This is such a popular activity that people often ‘reserve’ a good spot in the days leading up to King’s Day.
What else would normally happen on King’s Day? Well, people who are keen for a party will be spoiled with options. Turn any corner in any city center (pro tip: follow the music) and you will walk into the celebration of a lifetime. Imagine a big crowd of Dutchies, decked out in orange, beers everywhere, and everyone having a ball.
People who don’t want to leave it up to faith usually go for one of the many ticketed events scattered throughout the country. In cities with canals, you’ll also notice many people venturing out on the waterways, accompanied by many crates of beer, their thirty or so mates on a boat too small, and a (very) loud set of speakers. And yes… sometimes you’ll see a partygoer take an accidental and rather refreshing dip in the canals!
But unfortunately, the King’s Day ship has sailed this year. It is not safe to organize any gatherings due to coronavirus, and that includes having the entire country venture outdoors for a national celebration of togetherness. Yet, there are still many things you could do at home to get into the King’s Day mood!
What to do at home for King’s Day
It is not that hard to crack open a cold Heinkenen, put on some Dutch bangers and party like there’s no tomorrow. Of course, doing everything while wearing your best orange attire helps. Dutch singers like Marco Borsato, BLØF, and Guus Meeuwis will quickly get your quarantine King’s Day celebrations going.
Of course, any King’s Day playlist worth its salt will need to start off with one particular song: the Dutch national anthem, also known as The Wilhelmus.
It was composed in the 16th century, making it the oldest national anthem in the world. The full anthem consists of 15 verses, but don’t worry; you usually only have to sing the first and sixth verses.
Fun fact: the first letter of each verse spells out ‘WILLEM VAN NASSOV’. This is in honor of Willem van Nassau, the first Prince of Orange, who, with his sons, led the Netherlands towards independence during the Eighty Years’ War.
Why not also incorporate some tradition in your King’s Day at home? There are heaps of old Dutch games that are often played in local parks across the country during King’s Day. To an outsider, they might look a bit weird (okay, they are a bit weird), but they’re also a lot of fun! With a little bit of creativity, these games are easily done in your garden or living room.
King’s Day games to play at home
An easy game, and tasty as hell too! Other countries have variations of Koekhappen, but in the Netherlands, it is played with ontbijtkoek (spice cake or breakfast cake). People who want the real deal should use the Peijnenburg brand that is retailed in any self-respecting Dutch supermarket. You can also make it yourself.
Here’s how to play Koekhappen:
- Take a string and sew it through multiple pieces of ontbijtkoek
- Hang up your line of ontbijtkoek, so the contestants can stand underneath it
- Line up your contestants underneath one piece of ontbijtkoek each. Blindfold the contestants
- After counting down, all contestants must try to eat the ontbijtkoek as quickly as possible without using hands. The first one to finish wins
Spijkerbroekhangen (hanging from jeans) is not for the faint of heart. It is a test of strength, persistence, and your winner’s mentality.
Here’s how to play spijkerbroekhangen :
- Take two pairs of jeans (from your partner)
- Attach them securely to some sort of beam/doorframe/whatever you have available above you, so you can safely hang from the legs of the jeans
- Challenge your partner
- Stick your head between the legs (of the jeans)
- Start a timer and begin hanging
- The person who hangs on the longest wins
We’re rounding off with the crème de la crème of Dutch games: spijkerpoepen. It directly translates into nail pooping.
How do you play this butt-clenching game of spijkerpoepen, you might ask?
- Gather some string, a couple of big bottles, and big nails. If you don’t have big nails, pens will do as well
- Attach the nails to the ends of the string
- Tie the other end of the string around the torsos of the contestants
- Line your contestants up, standing over one bottle each
- The contestants must try to get the nail inside the bottle. Again, no hands allowed!
- The person who succeeds the quickest wins!
Luckily, the University of Groningen has put some unsuspecting international students to the test to give you more of an idea of what spijkerpoepen is!
King’s Day food
The Netherlands might not be known for its elegant cuisine, but they do have a couple of tasty treats that go hand in hand with celebrating King’s Day. We’ve already discussed spiced breakfast cake, but let’s explore some other delectable options.
For example, a sweet pastry called tompouce is a great idea for a sweet breakfast. They’re normally made with pink frosting, but for King’s Day, the frosting will be orange. You’d usually pick up this Dutch staple at your nearest HEMA, but you can also make it at home!
A local favorite: soused herring with onion. It is not specifically a King’s Day delicacy, but it is very Dutch. Soused raw herring with some onion… Mmm who wouldn’t want to take a bite! Most Dutch supermarkets sell them by piece, by you can get some at any fish shop!
Last but surely not least: bitterballen. You’ll see these balls of bad boys often at any terrace, party, bar, or group gathering in the Netherlands. Originally bitterballen were made from leftover meat, and in recent years, vegan variations have also been created. They’re a lot of fun to make at home!
Even though it is heartbreaking not to be able to come together on the streets to celebrate, King’s Day is too good of a party to be skipped – even if we are forced to have it in the confines of our homes. So crack open a cold Heineken, and put the deep fryer on, and let’s make this King’s Day 2020 at home another one we’ll never forget.
Long live the king!