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King’s Day in Groningen

Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, all King’s Day activities and events have been cancelled this year and people are advised to celebrate from home. But what is this uniquely Dutch holiday all about, and how did it get started? And how does Groningen traditionally get down on the King’s birthday?

Let’s start off with the basics: The Northern Times, the English-language news site covering the north, answers the “who, what, when, where and why” of this feestdag:

Who is the king?

The current Dutch monarch is King Willem-Alexander, and he ascended the throne in 2013 after his mother, now princess (then queen) Beatrix abdicated. The monarchy has officially existed since 1815, but nowadays, the royal family mainly serves a symbolic and diplomatic function.

What is King’s Day?

It’s a nation-wide celebration that (under normal circumstances) features open air concerts, street parties and flea markets in honour of the royal family, the House of Orange. Dutch people take the name literally and deck themselves out in orange from head to toe.

Many get the party started the night before during King’s Night – yet another (unofficial) two-day holiday in the Netherlands. On King’s Day proper, Dutch kids play old fashioned games like koekhappen (eating a piece of cake dangling from a piece of string) and spijkerpoepen (maneuvering a nail on a string attached to your pants into a bottle).

Many schools also organize Koningsspelen - field day games - for students in the days leading up to King’s Day (schools are closed on the day itself). The royal family celebrates King’s Day in a different Dutch city each year – King Willem-Alexander, Queen Maxima and the three princesses Amalia, Alexia and Ariane came to Groningen in 2018 - and the King himself typically plays a few games along with the local kids.

When is King’s Day?

Since 2014, this holiday has been celebrated on 27 April. But the date and the name of the holiday have changed multiple times over the past century:

1885 – 1890: 31 August, Princess’s Day (Princess Wilhelmina)
1890 – 1948: 31 August, Queen’s Day (Queen Wilhelmina)
1948 – 1980: 30 April, Queen’s Day (Queen Juliana)
1981 – 2013: 30 April, Queen’s Day (Queen Beatrix)
2014 – present: 27 April, King’s Day (King Willem-Alexander)

How does Groningen celebrate?

City Central, a city-based non-profit for helping internationals and locals connect, has the scoop: on a typical King’s Day in Groningen, festival lovers can dance the night away at the Kingsland festival in the Stadspark (set to return in 2022) or the Mainstage on the Vismarkt.

Revelers of all ages can score second-hand treasures at the Vrijmarkt (flea market). The location varies from year to year, but it’s usually either on the Singels or in the Noorderplantsoen. For kids, there is a special dedicated vrijmarkt at the Westerhaven where they can sell their used toys and even try out their busking skills to earn a bit of pocket money.

How can we celebrate King’s Day this year?

Despite Coronavirus restrictions, some King’s Day traditions are moving forward this year like any other: the holiday is one of the officially recognized occasions where Dutch homes can hoist the national flag and orange streamer, and decking out your living space with orange bunting is a surefire way to enjoy some holiday cheer at home. There’s also an online programme based on the theme of solidarity organized by the Oranjebond (Orange Union) with special activities for kids, like writing a letter or making a drawing for the king.

Even though elbowing your way through the throng of fellow bargain hunters in search of a diamond in the rough at the Vrijmarkt is sadly very much against lockdown rules this year, Visit Groningen has come up with a fun way to still get your second-hand shopping fix: a comprehensive list of the best vintage shop in the city, from classy old school clothing to kitschy mid-century furniture and other household goods.

If you’re not all shopped out yet, there’s also a special King’s Day sale at the Groningen Store: items from walking route guides to city keepsakes are for sale 60% off at the Groninger vrijmarkt 2021.