Scenes from an annual Dutch ritual: a competition to build the world’s biggest bonfire.
Writer and Photographer: Romke Hoogwaerts
EVERY NEW YEAR’S EVE in the Netherlands, the residents of two suburbs of The Hague take to a beach on the North Sea to build the two biggest bonfires on the planet.
It’s a kind of competition: the two crews have just six days to stack as many wooden pallets as they can, beginning right after Christmas. Then, at midnight on New Year’s Eve, the structures are set on fire. This past year, the boys from Scheveningen beat their rivals from the Duindorp neighborhood, creating a wooden pile that rose to an official height of 35 meters, or around 114.8 feet tall. (There are rumors online that the bonfire was even higher, but only city officials are allowed to release the number.) There’s a sort of rival bonfire in Norway, a neatly organized and safely fastened stack of pallets piled up for a festival called Slinningsbålet, that rose to 132.7 feet tall in 2007. But if we’re measuring cubically, which Guinness World Records does, Scheveningen beat Duindorp’s previous record in 2015, with a bonfire measuring 8,695 cubic meters (about 307,061 cubic feet).
The origins of these vreugdevuren, or bonfires, go back to the 19th century and beyond. Christmas trees came to Holland around 1850, and after Christmas teenage boys would roam the streets looking for discarded trees to set on fire. But this particular tradition, a kind of civil madness in which Christmas trees and wood are burned during New Year’s, started after World War II. Police have jumped in to curtail the fiery festivities many times over the years; there is even a word, kerstbomenjacht, for the hunt for trees to fuel the post-Christmas fires. And though teenage boys are not roaming the city looking for kindling in quite the same way they once did, as these twin bonfires can attest, traditions die hard, if at all.