New Year’s 2020 in the Netherlands

Edition 31 January, by Marla Thomson

“Relatively quiet” is what the headlines of the local newspaper’s weekend edition said. And though this would lead readers to believe that it was a quiet, “rustig” evening that rang in the new year, 2020 – the key word in the phrase is “relatively”. In comparison to other parts of the Netherlands (and Europe, for that matter), it was comparatively quiet. There were no burned-out cars, no incendiaries thrown at emergency services, no historical monuments lost and fortunately no major injuries. But the late-night-into-the-early-morning ringing in of 2020 here on the Dutch coast far from quiet.

As an American, I am used to fireworks. We shoot them off to some degree on New Year’s, but as most know our big firework holiday is the Fourth of July to celebrate the independence of the country; fireworks also grace many professional sporting events. Growing up in Germany, I am accustomed to fireworks for New Year’s and also to the “burning of the castle” in Heidelberg, where I spent my college years. In the US, while we do use consumer fireworks, the most awesome displays are put on by the organizers of special events or by the municipality during summer holidays. And even then, the displays usually last around 15-20 minutes, ending with a huge bang; then it’s over. But here in the Netherlands, it was quite different, as I experienced, especially for a foreigner.

What I saw this year in the Netherlands was a massive, extremely loud and long-lasting display of fireworks, rather than a celebration of the new year. In the otherwise quiet seaside town of Noordwijk, where the majority of inhabitants are older folks and pensioners, the loud booms and blasts lasted non-stop for an hour and fifteen minutes. And these booms and blasts were not off in the distance, like a designated zone where consumers fire off mini-rockets and bombs (as in some cities in the US), but rather in the neighbours’ back gardens, in the streets and even on the beach, where they are normally forbidden. And though the city mandated 6pm-2am as the allotted time to set off fireworks, they went off sporadically well through the early morning of 1 January and into the first days of 2020.

My thoughts went to the older residents of the town, to the birds and the animals that inhabit the woods and nearby dunes, to the refugees who likely escaped real bombings only to relive them again, to those who suffer from PTSD from warzones (something that is much more of a consideration in the US) and to the house pets, who were undoubtedly scared out of their wits. I know this, because I have two small dogs who were frightened so badly that they refused to go outside for 48 hours into the new year; when they finally did, they still shook with fright until 5 January. It was a heartbreaking New Year’s for me, to say the least.

I knew there would be a lot of fireworks, but I had no idea the level of fiery celebration that would happen. While I was completely surprised (shocked?) by the “celebration” here in the small town where I live, nothing prepared me for the unbelievable stories that emerged the following days. Just about every media outlet, including this one, reported on the jaw-dropping stories and the growing call for an all-out ban on fireworks here in the Netherlands. A ban that I personally support.

People argue that this is a “tradition”, which I am a huge proponent of: national traditions that bring depth, meaning and identity to a nation. But traditions can evolve, and in some cases should. If a tradition is disruptive to people and neighbourhoods and destroys the enjoyment for the majority … if a tradition is destructive to people, institutions, services, historical monuments … if a tradition brings out the worse in people and even hurts or kills people … shouldn’t the tradition evolve into something that it’s truly meant to be? Isn’t there a way that we all can celebrate while everyone enjoys it?

While there are arguments on both sides of the call to ban all fireworks, it seems that unless something profound is done, we will find ourselves in the same discussion this time next year – only with more having been lost, disrupted and maybe even gone forever.