Although the Netherlands is a geographically small nation, the people have had an enormous impact on the rest of the world. I have a strange affinity for the place, too. Something about the Netherlands, and especially Amsterdam, pulls at my heart like a magnet to steel.
Johan is one of the most influential enablers of my personal favoritism of the place. In fact, he is the one who insisted that I visit Holland the second time. He promised to make me fall in love with his compact country. I told him that I didn’t need much convincing, because I was won over a few years earlier.
When we finally met in person, Johan ushered me through a few of the back alleys of Amsterdam, because I had already taken in the usual tourist hotspots during my first visit. Next on the itinerary, a short ride to the city of Haarlem, Johan’s hometown, was a special treat.
Haarlem is enigmatic to most Americans because most of us think of Amsterdam, flowers, windmills, and dams when the subject of the Netherlands comes up. Visitors soon learn that Haarlem is the provincial capital of North Holland. I found out that Haarlem, during the Middle Ages, was the second largest city in Holland. It even surpassed Amsterdam in size, prestige, and economic importance. The city has a long, colorful history that I have since studied off and on following my visit there. I should mention that the Haarlem area is known for its special tulip varieties.
Anyway, back to Hartjesdag, which was the main subject of Johan’s phone call. My friend told me that Hartjesdag weekend is mainly a festival that is celebrated in scattered areas of urban Holland. The main focus is in the Zeedijk neighborhood.
Zeedijk translates to English as “sea dike”. Zeedijk is a street that runs through the historical old city center of Amsterdam. As with most Dutch places, this part of town has a colorful and mixed history. These days, the street is in the middle of the Chinese neighborhood.
Actually, Hartjesdag, or Day of Hearts, is not a major holiday in the Netherlands. It’s more like an historical sidebar. Most tourists don’t know about it unless they happen to accidentally stumble across the festival. What observers will see are women dressed as men and men dressed as women. It’s not an exclusive LGBT event, many straight people let go and join in the fun.
Johan explained that Hartjesdag is celebrated mainly in Haarlem, Bloemendaal (a very well-to-do city in North Holland), and in some Amsterdam neighborhoods like the Zeedijk. It is the revival of a more traditional holiday that was banned by the Nazis during the occupation in World War Two. In 1997, an ad-hoc committee in the Zeedijk decided to revive the festival. The antique holiday has been reconfigured into a weekend bash that takes place each third weekend of August.
I asked about the original Hartjesdag before the Nazis arrived and spoiled life for Nederlanders. Johan explained that Hartjesdag was originally a summer festival celebrated on the third Monday of August (Dag is Dutch for day.) In Medieval Times, it was a major holiday in the aforementioned Haarlem, Bloemendaal, and certain neighborhoods of Amsterdam. In the olden days, children collected gifts and money, fires were kindled there was feasting, and adults attended parties.
The day was special to common people because it was the one day that the forests around Haarlem were open for ordinary people to hunt deer. Hunting in the forests was normally restricted the rest of the year. Only the nobility was allowed the privilege. After the commoners had killed the deer, the carcasses were brought to Amsterdam and roasted over the fires that had been kindled in the streets for the feasts. As the years went by, Hartjesdag developed into a cross-dressing festival. Johan doesn’t know, for sure, why this happened. He guesses that as the deer hunting aspect lost popularity, the people still wanted an excuse to throw parties.
Johan said that he is only interested in attending a few parties this weekend. Of course, his favorite thing about Hartjesdag is the people-watching. Someday, Johan hopes to dress up for the event, too.