The Big Bonfire Tradition That Won’t Burn Out

Scenes from an annual Dutch ritual: a competition to build the world’s biggest bonfire.

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.

A vreugdevuur for the 40th jubilee of Queen Wilhelmina on Scheveningen’s beach, August 26, 1938.
A family and their friends celebrate New Year’s inside a stolen police jeep on Jan Steenstraat, January 1, 1968. According to local accounts, the crowd drove the new jeep into a bonfire, where it was found by police in the morning. G.J. ter Brugge, collection Haags Gemeentearchief
A New Year’s bonfire on Nieuwstraat in Leidschendam, a suburb of the Hague, January 1, 1980. G.J. ter Brugge, collection Haags Gemeentearchief
Shortly after this photo was taken on Jan Steenstraat, January 1,1968, two families began to argue about a car that was thrown on a street bonfire. When the police arrived, the families turned their anger toward the officers, erupting into a fight. G.J. ter Brugge, collection Haags Gemeentearchief
Children play with firecrackers inside upturned containers, the day after construction began at Scheveningen, December 26, 2016.
The morning after construction began, as seen from the snackbar on the boulevard in Scheveningen.
A growing collection of recycled Christmas trees, ready for burning, in front of the bonfire tower at Scheveningen.
Volunteer forklift drivers trade a lighter.
At Vreugdevuur Scheveningen, Wesley Ijzendoorn radios with a crane operator from atop the tower, December 27, 2016. A team of volunteers, including a handful of children, await the next drop of pallets.
On the way up. The towers are made up of over 100,000 pallets, which are purchased and donated by people all over Holland.
New pallets dropping onto the tower. The towers shake each time a new stack drops.
Throwing a broken pallet to the center of the tower.
Signaling toward crane operators on the ground.
Signaling toward crane operators on the ground a few days before the fire.
Scheveningen celebrates its victory with a pallet-encrusted trophy, January 1, 2017. City officials make the determination as to who gets top honors.
The fire builds.
The crowd celebrates after breaking through the fences.
The tower falls.
Streaker, January 1, 2017.
Vreugdevuur Scheveningen. The fires burn for 2-3 days before being doused. Leftover materials from the bonfires are eventually delivered to a waste management facility for composting.
New Year’s kiss.

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