Flag days

For a nation that’s supposed to have raised itself above petty nationalist sentiment, the Dutch have a curious affinity for flying the flag. Since moving to The Hague less than two months ago I’ve lived through four official flag days and a host of unofficial ones. Red, white and blue flags flutter from balconies, from the roofs of shops (the hardware store round the corner has three six), from restaurants and cafes. When teenagers pass their exams they ‘hang the flag out’ in celebration, often with their old school bag perched on the end of the pole. The first herring batch of the season is landed with much pomp and ceremony in mid-June, on a day known as “vlaggetjesdag” – Flags Day – when the Dutch congregate on the quayside in Scheveningen to eat raw fish with onions, drink beer and potter around traditional market stalls without buying anything. And, of course, there is a football tournament on at the moment, which means streets are festooned with orange bunting, ribbons, banners – and flags.

This being the Netherlands, the etiquette of flag-waving is meticulously regulated. There is even a page on the Dutch government’s website dedicated to the question: “When can I hang out the national flag?” The short answer is “whenever you like”, but the full text runs to 700 words detailing the difference between “limited” and “extensive” flagging, the buildings where flags are obligatory, and the correct proportions for the standard (a ratio of 3:2, should you be inclined to obtain one). Flags should not be raised during the hours of darkness, touch the ground or impede the flow of traffic. Because if there’s one thing even more sacred to a Dutchman than his flag, it’s his bicycle.

The flag is flown on the birthdays of the king and queen, their daughters, Veterans’ Day at the end of June and, perhaps most poignantly, Liberation Day – May 5 – which marks the end of the Nazi occupation in 1945. The day before is known as Dodenherdenking (Remembrance Day) when all the victims of war are remembered, and flags are flown at half-mast. And yes, the Dutch have a protocol for that as well:

“If the flag is to be flown at half mast, it should first be fully raised. Thereafter the flag should be slowly and stately lowered until the middle of the flag is at half its normal height. The flag is then secured to the flag line. The flag should not be tied. On lowering a flag from half mast it should be slowly and stately raised to full mast before being taken down in the same manner.”

Vlaggetjesdag at Scheveningen - the ceremonial opening of the herring season.
Vlaggetjesdag at Scheveningen – the ceremonial opening of the herring season.
It’s fascinating to move from a country where any display of national flags prompts dark mutterings and gnashing of teeth about “nationalism on the rise” to one where flag-waving is seen as an unashamedly joyous gesture. To quote the government’s website again: “The Dutch flag is the symbol of the unity and independence of the Kingdom of the Netherlands”. It would be easy to conclude that the Dutch flag is less tainted by its history than others, but to do that you have to turn a blind eye to the Netherlands’ grim colonial escapades in Indonesia and elsewhere. What is true is that the Dutch have come to associate their flag with moments of liberation –from Spain in the 16th century, Napoleon in the 19th century and Hitler in the 20th. Hooligans, isolationists and religious zealots have been unable to claim it as their own.

The other curiosity is that while most households seem to own a flag, I’ve yet to see one for sale. Are they handed out on the last day of secondary school? And why are they all so clean and impeccably preserved? I imagine that on May 3, the day before Dodenherdenking, the Netherlands reverberates to the thrum of washing machines as every Dutchman and woman over the age of 25 diligently washes, irons and presses their flag ready to hang it at half-mast the following morning (but not before dawn, obviously).

A Dutch flag with a school bag at the end of the pole to denote a student who has passed their exams.
Dutch teenagers celebrate passing their exams by hanging their school bag on the end of the flagpole.
Perhaps the answer lies in the instructions regarding the colours, which are specified as “vermilion, clear white and cobalt blue” – I can only assume there are special washing powders to preserve the correct shade. The good news for migrants is that other national flags can be flown alongside the Dutch banner, but heed must be paid to the correct order, which is decided by the first letter of the country’s name in French. Yes, French. That means that Scotland (Ecosse) should properly take precedence over the Netherlands (Pays-Bas), which sounds like a diplomatic incident waiting to happen if we Scots vote for independence in September (both countries, incidentally, would trump the Royaume-Uni, but defer to Angleterre). In any case, I’m storing this information away safely, in preparation for the day when I finally track down a flag stockist.

Correction: This article originally stated that the hardware store close to my home had three flags flying from its gantry. In fact it sports six pristine, well-manicured tricolors. My apologies to the owners.

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