Today is Good Friday, which is not a public holiday in the Netherlands. Imagine my surprise when I went to walk the dog and discovered businesses and schools closed. Huh? Isn’t the Netherlands a secular society?
The Netherlands is without a doubt a secular society. In fact, more than 65% of the Dutch population claims to have no religious affiliation whatsoever. But the Dutch view separation of church and state differently than Americans. For example, prayer in school is a big no no in the U.S. The Dutch aren’t bothered. If a school – whether religiously based or not – meets the general quality criteria set by the government then it will receive the same government funding as any other school. There are even three political parties based upon the Christian belief.
Being married to a Dutch man as well as having lived in Europe for several years, I was aware of the above before I moved to the Netherlands. Imagine my surprise when I noticed that the vast majority of Dutch public holidays are religious based. Here is a list of the official public holidays:
New Year’s Day
As you can see from above, New Year’s Day and King’s Day are the only two official Dutch holidays, which are not based on the Christian faith. Liberation day (May 5th) is only a holiday once every five years.
So, we have this secular society with almost entirely Christian holidays. How does that work? That’s history folks. Until the Second World War, the country was predominantly Christian and society was based upon the values of this religion – as were the holidays. The holidays are now so ingrained in the culture – and when people take their vacations – that no one really cares to change things. (Of course, with the surge of refugees – most of whom are Muslim – no one would dare to suggest making a change to a Christian holiday at the moment because of the backlash from the far right.)
The funny thing is most Dutch people can’t even tell you the meaning of the majority of the holidays. Most don’t even realize that the public holidays in the country are centered on religious holidays. If you ask most young people what Pentecost is, they’ll refer you to the huge pop festival that happens over that three-day weekend.
In case you’re wondering why my neighbors from the Dutch Bar Association are off today, let me explain. Employers are allowed to ‘force’ employees to take a percentage of their vacation days when the employer mandates. (It’s more complicated than that, but you get my drift.) For example, most businesses close on the Friday after Ascension. Good Friday is also a popular ‘mandated’ vacation day as most employees want to take the day off anyway to give themselves a four-day weekend.
Any other expats out there with strange holidays in their current place of residence?