When a friend told me she needed a last minute companion for a trip to Amsterdam, what could I do but volunteer to go? When I found out that our visit would coincide with Queen’s Day, a Netherlands national holiday, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was game for a celebration.
Few outside of the Netherlands know about Koninginnedag, or Queen’s Day, celebrated in the Netherlands on April 30. It’s an intensely national holiday, sort of like America’s Fourth of July, but with the pageantry of Mardi Gras or Carnival. It isn’t actually the reigning Queen Beatrix’s birthday, which falls in January, but instead is her mother’s, Queen Juliana. It’s much nicer to celebrate outside in April than in January, though, so the permanent date was instituted in 1980.
Commemorating the Queen’s birthday in the Netherlands publicly dates back to 1889. Queen Beatrix added her own twist to the holiday by making a surprise visit to one or two towns each year, honoring them with her presence.
Amsterdam is the always center of the hubbub, although the whole country celebrates. But before there is Queen’s Day, there is Queen’s Night.
We arrived on the day of Queen’s Night and were greeted by a curious sight. Many of the streets and sidewalks were marked with tape or chalk forming boxes with the word “Bezel,” which means “occupied,” along with names of people or stores. Besides celebrating the Queen’s birthday, the city turns into one giant flea market. Everyone marks their spot and hauls out everything, including the kitchen sink, to sell on the holiday. The “Queen’s gift” to the people is a special dispensation to sell whatever you like on the street. This means everyone cleans out their closets and attics and piles their stuff on the sidewalk to sell.
Wandering around the city our first day, my friend and I got a clue of what was coming. Stacks and stacks of beer kegs were everywhere, outside restaurants, bars and along the canals. Around 5 p.m. it was still pretty quiet as we ate a snack of cheese and had a white beer at a sidewalk café. We were soon to find out that Amsterdam was just gearing up for a late night. Most people were probably taking naps in anticipation of the evening.
By midnight the streets were packed. The popular spot to be was at the “Two Princes,” the intersection of Prinsengracht and Prinsenstraat. A calm place during the day, it was unrecognizable that night. Bodies pressed in, DJs played music and those kegs of beer were flowing. For 11 Euros, you could buy a six-pack of draft beer, which came in a cardboard carrier. People would buy two six-packs at a time and just hand them out to anyone in within arm’s reach. When you finished, the protocol was just to throw the trash on the ground. People we met there had to convince me that it was okay to do this. At one point, someone grabbed all the trash I was holding, and just threw it in the air. I was told street cleaners would clean everything later, which proved to be the case.
Despite the crush of bodies and the volumes of beer people were consuming, I never saw anyone get angry or even become rude. Everyone was clearly there to have a good time, and they did. And if people were urinating in the canal, well, I guess it couldn’t be helped. Where could you go in that crowd? By the time we finally left, it was 4 a.m. and the street party didn’t look like it was going to end anytime soon.
As we walked back to our borrowed apartment several blocks away, the city streets looked like the aftermath of Mardi Gras times 10. Beer cups and other litter covered everything. When we finally roused ourselves the next day and ventured out, the streets were spotless, even though it was raining. And despite the rain, people were out selling wares. Mere water wasn’t going to stop them. People gear up all year to do this. Clothes, jewelry, books, furniture, toys, paintings, appliances, antiques, junk, a never-ending collection of things, all for negotiable prices. Almost everyone in Amsterdam that I met spoke English, a bonus for bargain-hunters from other countries trying to cut a deal. By the afternoon, the weather had cleared and the street party was in full-swing again. DJs blasted music on every other block.
Besides the DJs, many people on the streets provided music in the hopes of a few coins from passersby. Children did dance routines to songs played on a boom box, while other musicians played on corners. In the canals, boats were packed with people blasting music and dancing, looking like at any minute someone would tumble in.
Now, for the explanation of orange: Orange is the color of the day in tribute to the royal family, or the “House of Orange-Nassua.” And everywhere the color was prominent. It seemed that every other person had on a more outrageous orange outfit than the last. Balloon hats fashioned into crowns were popular. I saw orange wigs, faces painted all orange, or, at the very least, people sported orange shirts or scarves.
The spirit of the whole event was so positive and happy; it was a pleasure to be there. There truly were mobs of people, but it never became unruly. I can’t wait to go back next year. I’ll be prepared this time, though. I’ve already started shopping for an orange wig.
IF YOU GO: