Two sides of the coin: remembrance and celebration

The Netherlands is the only country in the world that takes 2 days to hold both a day of remembrance (Dodenherdenking on 4 May) and a day of celebration for freedom and liberation (Bevrijdingsdag on 5 May).

Dutch flags
Dutch flags

Years ago, I came back from work one evening and noticed many houses with Dutch red-white-blue flags hanging at half-mast. I wondered if somebody important had died, but it turned out that the reason was that it was Dodenherdenking, Remembrance Day, the day to commemorate all those Dutch men and women who died during the Second World War and all wars and conflicts since then. It wasn’t a national holiday, so it had escaped my attention that this was a national event. In previous years, we had always been away on holiday at the beginning of May, taking advantage of the public holidays around this time. That’s no longer the case, so if you don’t live near a war memorial or the centre of town, you could be forgiven for not noticing, except for the Dutch flags hanging outside many houses. Those you can’t miss.

Don’t bank on a bank holiday for Dodenherdenking & Bevrijdingsdag

Life seemed like one long holiday back then because the end of April and the beginning of may was full of public holidays where almost everybody had a day off and May holidays were planned around them (not that we had children back then, but the number of colleagues off work gave it away) :

  • 30 April was Koninginnedag (Queen’s Day) back then (as opposed to King’s Day on the 27th now)
  • Bevrijdingsdag (Liberation Day) on 5 May
  • Hemelvaart (Ascension Day) on a Thursday soon after
  • Pinksteren (Whitsun / Pentecost) with a free Monday just a week or two later.

A few years back, the government decided there were so few veterans left from WWII that Bevrijdingsdag should only be a public holiday once every 5 years. When I checked on 4 May (settling a disagreement with my husband about the matter), I discovered that this policy has been changed again; whether you are entitled to a free day depends on your company’s collective employment agreement (CAO) for all public holidays, so don’t bank on a bank holiday unless you work for a bank or the government!

Hanging the flags out for remembrance and freedom

There are official rules in the Netherlands for when government buildings hang up flags, but you’re actually allowed to hang up the flag whenever you want. For royal birthdays and Koningsdag (King’s Day) you can also add an orange pennant to proclaim your loyalty, because the Dutch royal family’s surname is ‘van Oranje’ (as in William of Orange). The rules might be official, but other than government buildings, most people are just happy to decorate their houses so if they have a pennant, they’ll use it whether they’re supposed to or not. Anyone who was a member of Guiding or Scouting should know that you’re supposed to take down a flag before dark, dating back to armies not wanting to suffer the dishonour of having their flag stolen. Again, not everyone does that either.

Needless to say, many people hang out a flag on 4 and 5 May (Remembrance Day and Liberation Day). To show respect on Remembrance Day (Dodenherdenking), the flag should first be raised completely, then lowered slowly to half-mast. It should fly between 18.00 and sunset only. Being as Liberation Day (Bevrijdingsdag) is a day of celebration, the flag is fully raised and can be flown all day.

Dutch flag vocabulary

de vlag – flag

de oranje wimpel – orange pennant (comes from the same root as English wimple, the medieval scarf women used to cover their hair)

de (vlaggen)stok – flagpole

halfstok – half-mast

vlaggen / de vlag ophangen /de vlag uithangen – flying the flag / hanging up the flag

de vlag hijzen / de vlag wordt gehesen – raise the flag / the flag is raised

de vlag strijken / de vlag wordt gestreken – lowering the flag. Not the usual definition of strijken i.e. ironing, though you could do that too! It sounds like the phrase we used to use at Guide camp, ‘striking camp’, i.e. taking your tents down, and it’s also used for taking down a sail. In fact ‘striking a flag’ is mentioned in English on the Oxford Dictionaries site (definition 12.2), so there’s definitely a linguistic connection.

Read more about Dodenherdenking and Bevrijdingsdag in my next post.