Everything you need to know about King's Day - past and present

The Netherlands turns orange. Tens of thousands of children flog off their old toys. Young people trek to the capital en masse to party, as the pubs overflow. Goods change hands and games are played, as everyone drinks and dances. Long live the King!

Prinsengracht during King’s Day  Beeld ANP
Prinsengracht during King’s DayBeeld ANP

Napoleon Bonaparte presumably had a different idea in around 1800, when as Emperor of the French he had the Netherlands in his grip. Until 1815, when he and his men were finally expelled from the country. Goodbye to the French period, and welcome the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

In 1891, Queen's Day became an official national holiday to celebrate Queen Wilhelmina’s birthday  Beeld ANP
In 1891, Queen's Day became an official national holiday to celebrate Queen Wilhelmina’s birthdayBeeld ANP

Princess’s Day

Less than 100 years later, a local Utrecht newspaper suggested that the royal house should be celebrated in the form of Princess’s Day - in honour of the young Princess Wilhelmina. There was no dancing to techno, but certainly children’s games on the streets.

Cities and villages throughout the Netherlands soon adopted the festival. When King Willem III, Wilhelmina’s father, died, Princess’s Day became Queen’s Day in 1891, an official holiday to honour the Kingdom of the Netherlands. In 2013, the name was changed to King’s Day to mark the birthday of the first king since then.

Sack race, cake-on-a-string, shuffleboard and pin the tail on the donkey - these are some of the traditional children’s games that can still be seen on the streets on King’s Day. During World War II, the celebrations went ahead in secret after the Germans imposed a ban.

Warning: date-trouble

In 2013, Queen’s Day turned into King’s Day on April 27, the day King Willem-Alexander was coronated in the Nieuwe Kerk on Dam Square. The date of the celebration also changed. Traditionally, the holiday takes place on the ruling monarch’s birthday. However, former Queen Beatrix was born in January: too cold for open air celebrations. Therefore, Queen's Day had always been celebrated on April 30. Until 2013, when the date of the holiday was changed to King Willem-Alexander’s holiday: April 27. This has caused confusion among tourists, who were not aware yet of the change and looked rather lost and disappointed on April 30 the years after the change of date.

Major events banned

And after the war, the day soon gained in popularity. Musical performances were organised for young and old, performances that have evolved into major events over the past 70 years. They have become so large, that Amsterdam decided in 2012 to ban them from the city centre.

Nevertheless, the city has never in the past painted itself as orange for King’s Day as now. More than half a million visitors will arrive in the city from the Netherlands and abroad. There are excursions by boat on the canals, and private parties are organised on virtually every street corner. The municipality spend days cleaning up after King’s Day, collecting 600 to 700 tons of refuse.

Leidseplein during Queen’s Night 2013 Beeld ANP
Leidseplein during Queen’s Night 2013Beeld ANP

King's Night

The night before the King’s birthday also makes its contribution. King’s Night. Virtually every Amsterdam club arranges a party for this festival, which originated in The Hague in the 1990s and has grown in popularity by the year. Tickets are often sold out months ahead of time.

It may be party time in a large part of Amsterdam, but the royal family goes elsewhere to visit a village or town every year to mark the king’s birthday. They do craft work with the village children or go folk dancing at the local dance club. The royal family gets involved in all these activities. A procession through the local village is part of the tradition.

Car attack

But this procession led to a historic low point for the day in 2009. A car drove into the throng around the royal family, killing eight people. No members of the House of Orange came to harm, even though the perpetrator acknowledged immediately afterwards that they had been the target. The driver of the car died later in the day as a result of his injuries. The attack was broadcast live throughout the Netherlands and abroad.

Princess’s Day, Queen’s Day and now King’s Day has become a party for everyone to join in. Favourite spots on the pavement for selling items are taped off weeks ahead of time, and anyone wanting to join one of the more exclusive events has to book a ticket months in advance. While the popularity of the royal house may be on the decline among Dutch youth, King’s Day and Night grow in popularity by the year.

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