King’s Day in the Netherlands, the biggest annually birthday party in the world
On 27th of April 2023, King of the Netherlands Willem-Alexander celebrates his 56th birthday. The whole country celebrates with him on a national holiday. What is this unique Dutch tradition all about?
This year, the King will visit Rotterdam, a city in the west of the Netherlands, for a tour throughout the city. Along with the royal family, he will meet the public but he will also see a lot of performances of residents, such as dancing and singing. All those who aren’t present in the port city can follow the trip live on NOS, the national news broadcast. But of course Rotterdam isn’t the only city with festivities. In the whole nation you can find events, even in the overseas Caribbean regions.
According to royalty expert, Brigitte Balfoort, King’s Day has two essentials: ‘The first one is to bring the monarchy and the nation closer together. The second essential is that it is a day of national unity. It’s the only day we see the other members of the royal family, so it is the moment for the younger generation to shine. Without this festivity, there would be a big distance between the Dutch and the royal family.’
‘Without this festivity, there would be a big distance between the Dutch and the royal family.’
– Brigitte Balfoort, royalty expert
In Belgium, such a day would be unthinkable for Balfoort. ‘The royal family is already a weak spot and we don’t have that national unity’. During our national holiday, on the 21st of July, there are some festivities in Brussels, but that’s all. ‘This makes the holiday unique in the world. When people see the King, they really go crazy. A good example I saw this year was a T-shirt with LOVE AMALIA. She is getting a lot of criticism on her appearance, but this stunt will be a big success. It is also a good sign for the crown princess that she is supported and popular.’
Princess Day, Queens Day, or Kings Day?
The first holiday was on 31 August 1885, for the 5th birthday of Princess Wilhelmina. Back then it was called Princess Day because Wilhelmina was still a princess. The festivities were mostly for children with games, but also to emphasise national unity and to get to know their first soon-to-be Queen. Since 1891 it was called Queens Day, due to the death of her father King Willem III, Wilhelmina became Queen. The next two on the throne, Queen Juliana and Queen Beatrix, both celebrated it on the 30th of April, the birthday of Juliana. Beatrix’s birthday is in January, when the weather is still bad and she did it to respect her mother, Queen Juliana. While Juliana stayed at her palace Soestdijk in Soest, where the people had to come, Beatrix chooses to come to the people by visiting two villages each year.
It was called Queen’s Day until 2013 when King Willem Alexander came to the crown. He switched the date from the 30th of April to the 27th of April, his birthday. When Crown Princess Amalia, the first daughter of the King, becomes Queen, the name will switch back to Queen’s Day, but the date will become an issue. The princess is born in December, so the weather is quite cold.
In time of the corona pandemic, King’s Day was cancelled twice. The King celebrated his birthday with a twist, it became Stay Home Day. But the Dutch made an effort to still celebrate. On King’s Day there was an online flea market on ‘Marktplaats’, opened by the Queen and the Princesses. The whole family had different online meetings all day long. In the evening there was an online concert at the Royal Stables and Palace Noordeinde by the Streamers. The nation could see it live on the internet.
Balfoort believes that this is a tradition that will go on for ages. The royalties already went through bad weather before, for instance in the early years of Queen Beatrix in the eighties. ‘King’s Day is separate from the royal family. It will stay a big carnival and the popularity of the royals will always keep swinging.’
With King’s Day everyone wears orange and the Dutch flag with orange banner waves at every house. Orange was the nickname of the first king of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, Willem of Orange. He was the leader of the rebellion against Spain. Nowadays the royal family is still called the House of Orange. The Dutch see the colour as national unity and pride. Bakers in the country bake traditional pastries orange that day. Delicacies such as ‘tompouce’, puffs, ‘Bossche bollen’, and cookies get temporarily a different colour.
The atmosphere of Kings Day
Myrte Van Rijt is a 22-year-old Dutch student in Mechelen, she is from Boxtel, a village between Eindhoven, Den Bosch, and Breda where she usually celebrates Kings Day.
For Myrte King’s Day is kind of a random day off in the year, when you can go into the city with your to party. ‘For me, it doesn’t have a deep meaning because I don’t have a love for the royal family. We kind of take advantage of our King for this.’
‘When I was younger I participated in the Queen’s market, a flea market, where I sold homemade food. Now I put on some orange clothing, drink beers, and go party all day and night. Mostly it’s outside because most villages organise parties and concerts on the squares and streets like carnival. You can celebrate in some pubs, but it’s everywhere fun.’
Myrte tells that most people do wear orange or red-white-blue (Dutch flag) but it’s not obligated. Some people wear another colour on purpose, to stand out on social media.
‘Since I study in Belgium I do try to go, even when I have school, because the whole country is partying, I kind of get FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Last year we went with our student house, which was really fun to let the Belgium roommates experience our crazy tradition.’
‘We kind of take advantage of our King for this.’
– Myrte van Rijt
Maaike Schuttel is a first-year Dutch student in Mechelen. She comes from Stolwijk, a small village close to Rotterdam.
Maaike is also a fan of King’s Day, because of the atmosphere. ‘A lot of older people watch the parade of the King but the younger generations go party on the streets. So it’s a big holiday, everyone has a day off, which makes it very fun.’
She does often go to the “Vrijmarkt” with her parents and last year she went to Amsterdam, where she sat in the Vondelpark to enjoy the vibe with her friend group. ‘I do want to visit a festival someday because I haven’t done that yet.’
‘When I was a kid I participated in the “Lawaaioptocht”, this is a bike trip throughout the village with cans to wake everyone up at 8 AM, to start the festivities. After I often sold things on the market or participated in the traditional Dutch children’s games like bite-the-orange-cake or jeans hanging.’
While it’s official the day of the King, Maaike doesn’t really stand still by it. ‘It’s just a fun event for everyone, but the orange does make you think about the King. Also, the Dutch flag with orange pennant is everywhere.’ She continues that all Dutch people try to wear something orange, but the foreigners don’t. Therefore you can pick them out easily.
This year she doesn’t know yet if she will be able to celebrate it. ‘I was discussing with my schoolfriends to go to Breda this year, despite my school day, but it isn’t sure yet. Otherwise, we will celebrate in Belgium, because you do want to party. So we might go drink something together, because it is something that always needs to be celebrated.’
Festivities in the country
During King’s Night and Day, you can find festivities in every village. It already starts at King’s Night, the night before, in a lot of pubs and even festivals. On the evening before King’s Day, the royal honours be awarded by the King. The last Friday before King’s Day every school organises a sport event for the children, ‘The King’s Games’. The royal couple, King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima visit each year a different school.
If you want to make sure that you can party, there are enough tickets for festivals throughout the Netherlands. The most famous are Kingsland, ‘the Guilty Pleasure Orange Party’ and Kingsdance. To experience it yourself, you can visit cities close to the Belgian border, such as Breda, Tilburg, Eindhoven, or Maastricht. In Breda, you can find ‘538 Koningsdag’ to party, and in Eindhoven, they have the King-S festival. But in the city centre there is enough to celebrate, with the tip from our Dutchies, don’t forget your orange outfit.
Text: © Lotte van den Hout
Photo: © Lotte van den Hout