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Spring Celebrations in the Dutch Republic – and a Surprising Offshoot

By Rebecca D’Harlingue
April 10, 2023

Many of the spring celebrations in the Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century originated with Catholic religious days. Although the Dutch Reformed Church, based on Calvinism, was the official religion, the population hung onto the festivals. The observations varied by region, but here are some fun examples.

On the Sunday before Easter, or Palm Sunday, in some places children walked through the streets carrying crosses decorated with such things as colored paper or cookies in the shape of different kinds of fowl. They sang songs, often asking for eggs to be used as part of the upcoming festivities.

The Egg Dance, Peasants Merrymaking in an Inn by Jan Steen 1674

At Easter, eggs were often decorated and eaten, but that wasn’t their only role. In the popular Egg Dance, someone danced among eggs spread on the ground, trying to break as few as possible. A variation had a single egg placed in a circle, beyond which the dancer could not step. An even more challenging tradition was to tip an egg from a bowl, then try to flip the bowl over it, all using only the feet. These games could become quite raucous, as depicted in various paintings of the time.

The Little Alms Collector by Jan Steen c.1664

Imagine children parading through the streets of Amsterdam on the Saturday before Pinksteren, or Pentecost in the Catholic church, starting at dawn. This could get a bit wild, with the children carrying a wreath of greenery, making a lot of noise, knocking on doors, and even throwing stones at windows, all while singing rather insulting songs, exhorting people to get out of bed. At times the rowdiness got out of hand and spread out beyond Amsterdam, with rival gangs fighting, and even attacking windmills, and unlike Don Quixote, actually damaging the equipment. Ultimately, the Amsterdam authorities limited the celebration to the singing of approved songs.

Pinksteren was marked by dancing, singing, and general merry-making. Some scholars contend that festivities started in the Middle Ages, and were rooted in pre-Christian fertility rituals. In some areas, what we think of as a Maypole was also part of the revelry.

A specific part of Pinksteren in some places was the Pinksterblom (literally Pentecostal flower), a kind of “bride” who dressed in white and wore flowers in her hair. She was attended by other girls, and together they collected fruit, sweets, or coins from people who came to their doors. One source says that the girls then chose the “bride” for the next year, and shared what they had collected. Another source says that it was the unmarried men who chose the bride. Yet another says that the proceeds were used for a drinking session!

It is this tradition of celebrating Pentecost, often shortened to “Pinkster,” that the Dutch brought to New Netherland. In what became New York and New Jersey, some of the Dutch held enslaved people, and on Pinkster they were given some liberty to travel, make merry, and offer goods for sale. West African traditions became part of the celebration, and by the mid to late eighteenth century, Pinkster had come to be seen as primarily an African-American festival, with Albany the site of the largest, multi-day event. Around 1812, however, government officials banned the drinking and dancing associated with the celebration. Explanations by historians range from the “discomfort” of the white citizens, to fears of the large gathering leading to a revolt.

In the 1970s the Pinkster tradition was revived in Philipsburg Manor in the Hudson Valley, and continues until today. A Pinkster celebration is also held at the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York.

An interesting sidenote to American Pinkster is that American author James Fenimore Cooper, in his novel Satanstoe described a Pinkster celebration, giving an unrealistically favorable interpretation of how the Dutch treated people of other races. But that’s a story for another day.

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Rebecca D’Harlingue
Written by Rebecca D’Harlingue

Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her second novel, The Map Colorist, won a Literary Titan Award and a Firebird Book Award.

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