The fire blazes nearly seven-stories high as the North Sea wind whips the flames from one side of the structure to the other. The crowd of a couple thousand ebbs and flows around the giant wick as techno music throbs to the beat of the burning light show. And at the base, Christmas trees burst into flames scenting the area with the fine smell of cedar. Ah, but there is a wildness in the air — in the dark and the smoke and the flame — a hunger that makes your skin thirsty. For what? Anything is possible at this gigantic campfire.
How did we possibly get here?
Let’s start with the notion of a little healthy competition. We all love a little healthy competition. But, the idea that a “little healthy competition” might prevent anarchy and violence? Now that is a new one to me. Would that mean that the athletic games between Iowa and Iowa State are actually needed to prevent a mob of Eastern Iowans from coming down Interstate 80 and sacking Ames? Got me. But let me tell you a tale.
Once upon a time there was a city sitting in one of the most populous areas of Europe. I mean a ton of people. People were squeezed tight in this city. So tight that if you parked your car in the middle of one of the narrow streets, you blocked access by hundreds of people to their front doors. Tight.
Within this city are many distinct neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are orderly, clean, and quiet. In fact, your neighbor to the left, right, or above, will knock on your door without hesitation if you’re listening to Grey’s Anatomy just a bit too loud. And, heaven forbid you talk in more than a whisper after 11 at night. It is time to settle down and be respectful. So if you plan to have a fight with your wife, please watch the clock.
Ah, but once a year, the kettle releases a bit of steam. It originally began quite innocently. On New Year’s Eve, neighborhoods started shooting off fireworks and lighting bonfires made from discarded Christmas trees and wood pallets. Then neighborhoods started competing with other neighborhoods for the biggest and best bonfires. Then neighborhoods started stealing Christmas trees and wooden pallets from other neighborhoods — you can see this is going south quickly — and, unsurprisingly, these thefts caused a bit of animosity. Fights broke out. Serious fights. People were hurt and the cops were overwhelmed with complaints.
The City stepped in. There’s going to be a competition. There will be designated spots on the beach where neighborhoods can construct their bonfires. Two spots eventually. From December 27th to New Year’s Eve, neighborhoods will compete to see who can build the biggest torch.
And that’s what happened.
“The fights were years ago in The Hague. They were small fights. We were stealing Christmas trees from each other. And pallets from each other. And hitting each other. But now it is all legal.” Danny patiently explains. He is in his fourth day of building this gigantic pyre overlooking the North Sea.
Danny is supporting the Duindorp neighborhood. The pyre on the other side of the harbor is being built by the Scheveningen neighborhood. Both are scrappy, blue-collar enclaves historically made up of hard-working fishing families. Tough folks to this day.
“This is tradition. I did it since I was 12-13. It started with small fires in the square. Then we moved up and became a little bit bigger. But we became too big. So the mayor told us to go to the beach. Now it is tradition. The 27th of December, we start with building on the beach. On the other side of the harbor, they build. There is a competition as to who is going to be a largest one. Last year we won. We had 1200 of these pallets.” Danny smiles at me with pride.
“We all have jobs. Most of the people take off the job. It is from builders to office people. Everybody, the whole neighborhood, it is a tradition every year. Ours is a real neighborhood. Everybody knows each other. You can let your child out and your neighbor will take care of them. Everybody takes care of each other. Once a year, it is a five-day party. No sleep. No rest. No work.”
Danny’s friend, Ron, joins us. He is laughing and talking rapid Dutch. He doesn’t know that I don’t understand a word. He is talking to me as if I might be a potential volunteer to climb the tower with a wood pallet on my back. At that very moment, I stumble off the teetering wood pallet I’m perched on. Clearly, I’m not a promising candidate. Ron changes his tact.
“This is the most fun tomorrow night. It is the largest bonfire in the world. Not the tallest one, but the largest one.” Ron invites me to the neighborhood party that accompanies the blaze.
But isn’t this crazy dangerous to build?
Ron looks at me no longer smiling: “It is really dangerous. The pallet will catch the wind and fly far down the beach. It is really dangerous. But a crane will come and help tomorrow. Although if the crane turns wrong, the wind will catch it and tip it over.”
Oh my . . . and after the fire, what will you do?
“For the first three days we sleep, and then we get to our normal work again.” Danny and Ron, neighborhood friends, smile with exhaustion.
As they are walking away, Ron tells me I need to go see the 10,000 people run into the North Sea on New Year’s Day at noon. I ask him if he plans to go swim with them.
“We are crazy, but not that crazy.” And they each grab a pallet, laughing loudly, as they head towards the wooden mountain, side by side.