The Call of Midwinter

You’ll hear it from miles away, the Midwinter Horn. It’s a large, bent, wooden horn, played from Advent till Epiphany in the Groninger area of Westerwolde, huddled against the German border, with its Eighty Year War fortification of Bourtange. It’s a mournful sound, and you’d think it’s lowed over the heather for centuries, since Saxon times. While the area indeed has Saxon roots, the tradition has no known history in Groningen; only in 2005 did it blow over from the southward provinces of Drenthe and Twente. It is very popular there too – there are several Midwinter horn groups, courses in making a horn, and classes and exams. It’s great to see so much interest in this very old custom, especially since at certain point it was moribund.

It’s interesting to see how it’s been written about in the regional newspaper, the Nieuwsblad van het Noorden. In 1926, in the folklore column, we read:
A previous year I was in a noisy Belgian environment of popping Champagne corks, amidst a celebrating audience in paper hats and half-dressed in ‘evening dress’, witnessing such a ‘reveillon de grand-gala’, and celebrated New Year’s Eve amidst a wild bunch, culminating in the cacophony of a raging jazz band. But in the land of Twente the old year still dies under the mysterious notes of the lamenting Midwinter horn and the blessed clock ringing of so many towers in Twente. (Nv/hN, 6 March 1926)

1933 shows us a photograph of a farmer and his wife (but note that the woman’s horn is made of welded metal instead of metal-banded wood):
An old custom, of which the origin and meaning are lost in the darkness of centuries, the blowing of the home-made Midwinter horn. This custom still exists in Twente, and especially in Ootmarsum. Preferably, the Midwinter horn is blown over a well, which will amplify the note so much that the heavy sound can be heard hours further. (Nv/hN, 28 Dec 1933)

And from the 1935 Christmas picture spread (see the smoked meat hanging from the rafters!):
The Midwinter horn is taken from the wall in the “Los Hoes” in Ootmarsum. The blowing of the Midwinter horn still happens in Twente in the dark days before Christmas. (Nv/hN, 21 Dec 1935)

This from the 1953 New Year’s Eve picture spread. Standards appear to have slipped – no solemn and mournful tooting over a well; it’s a band of youngsters now, with easier to make metal horns:
Through the somber wood the sound of the Midwinter horns sounds. In Twente this old custom is still kept in honour in the dark days between Christmas and New Year. (Nv/hN, 29 Dec 1953)

The columnist, poet & satirist Kees Stip writes the following in 1970. It does show resistance to the reawakening interest in folk tradition, which at that time was seen as the domain of ‘hippies and dropouts’ and nostalgists, while for another part of the older generation (Stip was born in 1913) it was just old junk, to be consigned to the scrap heap. It’s also significant that Stip assigns the custom a distinct ‘Germanic’ identity, while the War was still fresh in memory. He writes, snidely:
* Who still has a shred of Germanism in his soul, can have his soul blown through in Twente. Over the whole area the sound of the Midwinter horn will sound again. I think it’s pretty, but pretty nauseating, just like Wagner. The soundscape reminds me of the rutting cries of an old elk which has fallen in the well, tries to climb up and falls down again. In reality it’s only water in the well, with a farmer blowing above it.
* Farmer or elk, blowing the Midwinter horn is an art requiring a lot of skill. Only the most skilful it is given to add to the basic notes not only the terts and the kwint but also the sekst. For farmers this may not mean much, but for elks it probably is one of the most stimulating forms of sexual entertainment.
* Our heathen forefathers blew the Midwinter horns to chase away evil spirits. Nobody knows whether this is true, but as an extinct heathen you’re depend on the Christians to interpret your deeds. The Christians themselves interpret their still uncured Midwinter blowing ailment as the heralding of the glad tidings. You’d get that news tooted through the phone like that. For me, Midwinter horns mean that it can’t be summer soon enough. (Nv/hN, 22 Dec 1970)

An article from fifteen years later is more enthusiastic. It paints the picture: “Outside it’s foggy and already dark since four-thirty. Suddenly, as if from a different world, come the somber, mournful and mystical sounds you’ll never have heard and will never forget.” It seems to me that the writer has been rummaging in the paper’s cuttings, picking up some of the phrasing. As the tradition’s origin, the heralding of Christ’s birth is mentioned, and the banning of the Catholic mass in the 17th and 18th century; apparently German priests would sneak over the border to hold secret masses in farmers’ sheds, and the Midwinter horn would be used to sound the alarm if they were disturbed. The writer is most convinced by a pre-historic origin, and the chasing away of dark powers, and gives some useful facts on its history and construction:
While in Switzerland and, for example, Hungary, similar horns are used to call the cattle, the use of the Midwinter horn in Twenthe looks most like the “hyrdelurs” played in Sweden and Norway during Midsummer nights. Cave drawings in the south of Sweden from 1800 BC suggest that these horns are older than Methuselah. The Midwinter horn would only have decorated a wall here and there if a few folklorists hadn’t reinvigorated the old custom about 30 years ago. From that time onwards, the mysterious sounds can be heard again over the stubble of the corn fields. Twenthe even has a few craftsmen again who can make the real Midwinter horn. They use a one-and-half meter long birch or alder branch which is drilled in at the thin end for the mouthpiece (in Twente dialect, “de happe”). Then the wood is sawn through lengthwise, are both halves hollowed out with a chisel, glued together and wound round with rattan. (Nv/hN, 20 Dec 1985)

The website of the Ootmarsum Midwinter horn blowers (founded 1992) also regales its history, from pagan origins to Christian instrument for the heralding of Christ and as alarm mechanism. On its modern history and usage:
The tradition of the Midwinter horn blowing was near dying in Twente. Luckily, the custom was restored in the fifties by Toon Borghuis from Oldenzaal. The horns on which we play now are made of wood. From the early 20th century come the tin horns, a product from the village smith. These instruments are a thorn in the ‘ear’ of the fan. Restoring the tradition didn’t go without a hitch. There were two groups who fought for the oldest honour and practices. There are farmers, who think that the ‘oalde roop’, the one simple note of the horn, are the real tradition which needs to be preserved. Others, the melody-blowers, can get a seven-note sound from the horn.
Around 1970 there were already more than 300 blowers who, between St Andrews and the Sunday after Epiphany, produce the mysterious sounds and now the tradition is alive and well! Practiced players can now produce at least four notes from their instrument, and star players can blow a series of seven or eight notes. The melodies are set and there are two common riffs. Many players feel it should stay at that; no ‘Happy Birthday’ and other songs on the Midwinter horns.
What is important for all groups in Twente is that the tradition should not be overshadowed by making it a carnaval. It should remain a solemn occasion. It’s folklore, but a continuation of an stately occurrence. It is also out of the question that more than one horn is blown at the same time. This is against tradition. The sound of one horn has to echo over the land; through this simple means from their own farm, the farmers would notify each other of the days getting longer, and the coming of the Messiah. (Midwinterhoornblazen.nl)

Saasveld, 10 miles further down the road, has its own group (est. 1970) and website. They’ve got more about the history and correct usage. Their outreach activities are still going on, this year for the 66th time:
In the early fifties of the last century the blowing of the Midwinter horn was resuscitated by some famous men from Twente, like the musician Toon Borghuis, Dr Bernink, the architect Jan Jans, beer brewer and folklorist Meijlink and Hendrik Racer Palthe from Everloo. In Saasveld, from 1952 onwards, there was a movement from the folklore group Saterslo to get more attention for the dying tradition of the Midwinter horn. Gerard Hesselink Jr (Holtkamp) with some other villagers, took up the gauntlet, and in 1954 the first organised activities happened. These existed of going round the hospitals and old people’s homes, together with the theatre group Enscheder Spöllers, the “De Krekkel” dancers and taking part in contests. (…)
The neighbourhoods of Saasveld have from the start had an eye for the preserving of tradition in the right but contemporary way. For this, the basis is the trinity of period, horn and call. The period Advent to Ephiphany is for blowing, the horn (wet or dry) is to be made of native wood (such as alder, birch, willow) with a mouthpiece of elder. The call is depending on place or even family (not sheet music).
The past sixty years we have, together with the former group
Kemissie veur ‘t Mirreweensterhoornbloazen and the later foundation from Twente, taken action several times to preserve the tradition in the right way. Tin horns and horns made of slats, plastic mouthpieces and the nailing down of the right call have been discussed. In this context it is notable that the neighbourhood of Saasveld as one of the few is mostly blowing on the wet horn. (midwinterhoornblazerssaasveld.nl)

Early Saasveld blower Hendrik Weghorts with wife and sister

This Commission for the Mirreweenster Horn Blowing organised its first competition on boxing day 1953. Notably, this was done on the tin horns, which were more durable and were easier to blow on. Toon Borghuis did say: “Op ‘n deur mu’t te we’j weer noar ‘t haolt.”“Eventually, we need to go back to wood.” As the goal for the competition he’d stated: “it needs to be a flowing, easy melody; the call from one farmer to the other. That’s the real Midwinter horn blowing, as it can be heard in Advent’s time in the east of Twente, when at hours’ distance it is passed on from one farm to the other.” This competition followed the first organised blowing, on the 18th December 1949. That evening, at 7pm Bernard Boomkamp from Hertme stood with his horn at the well of his Vrielinks farm. The sound was then carried from farm to farm through the area. Around 10:30pm the sound was answered from Losser and Denekamp.

From a folklore thing from a corner of the country, the Midwinter horn became a tourist favourite, and in 1985 the tourist board already organised demonstrations throughout the region. Then, in 1987:
H.G. Lich is in his daily life director of the tourist board in Exloo. Last summer he got a letter from the Spanish organisers of the festival of international customs in Malaga. “If I knew someone who practiced a real Dutch tradition. Then I thought of F. Tenniglo. He is Dutch champion Midwinter horn blower and the only person still making the instrument. I phoned him, told him about the festival and that I had already entered his name. ‘Nothing will come of it,’ he told me. But two weeks later he got a message.”
The Spanish were interested in the Midwinter horn blower from Twente and wrote that a plane ticket was ready for him. Tenniglo then understood what he had signed up for and got cold feet. “I’m happy to come, but not on my own,” he demanded. Lich also had to come.
The tourist board director was keen, but couldn’t play an instrument and also was not a craftsman. “So we got the farmers’ horn of Exloo from the cupboard. You only have to signal with it. Everyone can do that.” However, Lich is not bringing the original. He has put a small whistle in a replica to make it easier to blow on. “They’ll never notice,” the apprentice tooter knows. “The real farmers’ horn remains in the Bebinghehoes in Exloo. We’re afraid it’d get stolen in Spain, or damaged.” (Nv/hN, 12 Dec 1987)

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