Saturday, December 19, 2009


On Tuesday we trekked out to Gouda to witness the annual kaarjesavond (candle evening). Gouda is a beautiful city that has been around since at least 1139. In the center of the main square is a gorgeous building that has served as the city hall since it was built in 1448. For kaarjesavond, candles get lit behind every window of the building, the surrounding stores on the square turn off their lights and the houses above the stores light their own candles in the windows.

Thousands of people were gathered around the city hall in the freezing cold. There were several choirs who led the crowd in singing Christmas carols and I was surprised to discover that I still know most of the lyrics in Dutch. Then the candles in the city hall got lit, we sang some more carols and Gouda’s mayor (who, in his official get-up looked remarkably like a mafia lord) made a speech. He reminded us that we were all gathered in the square exactly like it has been happening for centuries and he called for respect and tolerance in our society. Then the mayor of Gouda’s twin city in Norway lit the giant Christmas tree they had donated and we sang some more.

If I hadn’t been able to truly get into the Christmas spirit, even after my cousin confessed how glad she was we are here this year to share it, this ceremony surely did the trick. I got almost overwhelmed with a sense of history, community and belonging there, freezing my ass off on Gouda’s main square.

As we were all singing about Jesus’ birth, knowing that the vast majority of the crowd never attends a church, the thought of the separation of church and state did cross my mind. Obviously, we don’t have that rule in Holland – which is interesting because we are not a particularly religious society, especially in this point in time. I’m usually pretty sensitive to the issue; I feel strongly that the two should indeed be separated, but that night it didn’t bother me. In fact, I thought it was pretty marvelous, standing amidst the people of Gouda who, as the mayor pointed out are representative of 130 different countries, all singing the same carols – our Kyrie Elyson’s loud and clear because for many that was the one part we remembered – not because we all believe in the story of Christ’s birth, but because we enjoyed being part of the community; to celebrate an otherwise pretty bleak season. And because any more modern songs would have seemed entirely out of place at the over half a millennium old town square.

I’m not saying that Holland should not adopt a separation of church and state law, because I think they should. It’s just that at that particular night, belting out old hymns and carols amongst thousands of other people in the freezing cold in the candlelight, it seemed fitting.

No comments: