One of my early New Year’s memories is visiting my grandfather and seeing, on the roof of a municipal building, a complete farmer’s wagon. In an 1985 newspaper article someone remembers about such an occurrence, decades earlier: My father, who came from the Hogeland (northern Groningen) told us in all colours about it. They would take a wagon completely apart, take the axels out, take the sideboards off, and then it was put together again on top of a farmer’s barn. My father also told that they sometimes loaded the wagon full of manure. (…) Once we were dragging an enormous barrel of fish offal. It stank awfully. We just had it standing on a bridge when the police came for control. The barrel was left standing there, of course, and we were covered with gunk. (…) Sometimes farmers would chase us. They were already waiting for us, and then they had their fun. (Nv/hN, 31 Dec 1985)
New Year’s pranks like this happened in our village too. Ulrum is a small village, yet it had four churches. That it was the seat of the 1834 Seccession may have to do something with that. Members of some of these churches were not really on speaking terms; “we are not Brothers,” as the Freed Christian Reformed Article 31 members had it. Yet, one Old Year’s Day, after their Old Year service, they had to interact with each other when all bicycles of churchgoers were swapped between churches. My brother adds: “I did it a lot in my youth, starting already during the evening, continuing through out the night. Our main goal was to block church doors and entrance roads to the village. But we also did other pranks such as placing mannequin dolls on top of roofs, changing the name signs of villages in the neighbourhood etc.” From the 1985 Nieuwsblad van het Noorden article: “The young people were getting giddy in anticipation of the dragging. We were thinking of stunts everyone would be talking of the next day.” He still has good memories of the time when he and his friends during the Old Year service swapped all the coats from churchgoers of the two churches. (Nv/hN, 31 Dec 1985)
The Old Year church service fell victim to pranks a few more times: once when one youth brought in a box of eggs and, from a perch near the back, released the eggs, one at the time. The church floor sloped towards the choir, so each egg would quickly gain speed, rattle underneath the benches and, if it didn’t come to a stop at someone’s feet, come to a yolky end at the front. Another time, someone removed the spark plugs from the electric church organ, bringing a hymn from a full ‘all registers’ to a premature and whimpering anti-climax.
For many years, an old car, a clunker, would be secured ahead of New Year’s Eve, and then after midnight rolled to the village square by local youths and set alight. The fire brigade would be prepared, but wait a while before extinguishing it, meanwhile standing around the fire themselves with a pot of beer. The local Spar owner, poor Mr. Scheper, would also be prepared and have his insurance papers ready, as many years his shop windows would burst through the heat.
Fans of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods may be reminded of that novel’s own clunker (here spelled ‘klunker’), a decrepit car which stands on a frozen lake in Laketown, Wisconsin. The place is protected by Hinzelman, a kobold who does so in exchange for the midwinter sacrifice of a child. Every year, residents hold a raffle in which they predict the date when the klunker will finally crash through the ice, signalling the end of winter. It’s been a while since I read the book, but I would guess that dragging the klunker onto the ice is also a communal, almost ritual, effort. What all these traditions in common have is some kind of shared effort, or a spectacle involving the public destruction of a focal object, to mark the turning of a season.
Sanne Meijer, a blogger from Groningen, writes:
In some villages the youth goes out on New Year’s night to “drag”: moving objects which have been left lying around outside the house. In the past, farmers’ carts were placed on roofs; now it’s usually smaller objects being moved. Sometimes to a central location, but it can also happen that people really have to search the next day, to get their flowerpots and garden furniture back.
“Dragging” is often part of an “Old Year’s Stunt” which was used to put a village or club in the spotlight. In the last weeks of the year a particular object of note disappears from the village, which then is placed back at the turn of the year. On the 31st of December 2013 the signs for “Most fun village of the province Groningen” were removed from Niekerk, and then appeared the next day in the village of Kornhorn.
One of the best known stunts was the appearance of Lenin in the Frisian village Oosterwolde. On New Year’s day 1998 a giant statue of Lenin had appeared in the village. It turned out to have come from Tjuchem in Groningen; the owner had imported it from the erstwhile USSR.
To prevent their stuff being dragged, people used to make sure that they’d put everything that could be moved in the shed. I remember that my dad would make sure that our red-and-white painted trash can (easy to recognise when there are twenty bins at the roadside for collection) was safely locked up. Still, looking on the Internet you see reports of place-name signs being swapped, ‘for sale’ signs being moved, orchestrating a garden gnome football match, and what else the youth can invent. There’s a fine line between “slepen” (dragging) and “slopen” (wrecking); swapping people’s garden furniture to have neighbours puzzled or mildly inconvenienced is one thing; dragging their stuff away to set alight is another. You can see both, and the sheer scale of dragging, in this 1978 footage taken in the northern villages of Ulrum, Leens, Wehe, Eenrum and Zoutkamp. In front of Ulrum’s town hall stands a manure wagon, a shopholder is rebuked for having rip-off prices per grafitti, a lot of farm equipment blocking the roads… Do watch it!
As with many unwritten rules, this is not always clear, and slepen can easily turn into slopen. A Nieuwsblad van het Noorden commentator already rings alarm bells (or death knell) of the dragging custom:
Another tradition is moribund; the tradition of (in the countryside) the dragging of goods from one place to another. At first glance nothing to lose sleep over, except maybe for those who experience the loss of any tradition as painful and the curse of the modern age. But there’s more. The traditional dragging has been replaced by violence and vandalism. According to the Groninger police force New Year came with chaos, fires and vandalism. It was the same in the other northern provinces. A sad development. Dragging wasn’t always fun for the victims, but it was never more than teasing neighbours or fellow villagers. Whomever had lost something in New Year’s Night, usually knew where to search the next day. Now the dragging has turned into vandalism, searching is no use, as the belongings will have been destroyed. This is bad business. When people are out to cause damage and misery, then it’s about time for the powers that be to sit around the table to talk about these developments. Whether it’ll help can be doubted, but the chance that these conversations leak through to the perpetrators and calms them down can not be left unused. (Nv/hN, 02 Jan 1978)
Then again, already in 1962 there were those who’d rather see it go altogether:
START WELL: NO DRAGGING
A custom can be old and good, and should be kept, but a custom is not good because it’s old. It’s a custom for some to drag the goods from others in New Year’s Night, because they find it funny, or because it happens each year, or because their parents used to do it, or to tease, or another reason. However, this custom may be old, it is not good, and should be banned. Let’s start the new year well. A good start is half the job done. Sincerely, G.W.M. ZIJLSTRA, Grootegast. (Nv/hN, 28 Dec 1962)
There are more subtle societal sides to dragging which are easily overlooked:
“People would leave stuff outside on purpose. When you thought that you’d secretly dragged something away, they were thinking from behind the curtain: Finally rid of that old wheel-barrel.” However, it could also be corrective: Sloppy farmers had to search and haul back a lot, while the youth was watching and sniggering. People who had placed themselves too much outside of society would find their door barricaded with dragged stuff: “We were dragging those empty oildrums to a peculiar shopkeepers couple. As children we were afraid to pass them; you were not even allowed to stand in front of the shop window, because he’d come outside with a stick and if he got the chance he’d beat you. Someone like that would be put to rights.”
New Year’s pranks are a tradition of the northern Dutch provinces, and the domain of teenagers, the older youth. New Year’s mischief is an example of the upsetting of the normal order, and the short reign of the Lord of Misrule. Think of the passages in Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame set during the Feast of Fools (set in the book on 6 January), in which Quasimodo is made the False Pope; while the historical Feast of Fools was an ecclesiastical ritual in which upper and lower clergy would trade places, Hugo’s story widens it up to larger and wilder social context, more akin to the (unrelated) Roman Saturnalia. Rituals of inversion have obvious appeal in situations where there is a rigid hierarchy – such as a military chain of command. The British Army have a tradition, begun in 1890, of officers serving their soldiers in bed on Christmas Day. The drink? ‘Gunfire’, which is black tea laced with rum. Even deployed troops have their small taste of Christmas misrule, as often their Christmas dinner is served by officers. In Groningen too it was tradition that farmers would treat their staff on a good meal at Midwinter; something to come back to another day.
Saturnalia was celebrated on the 17th December, later extended until the 25th. It included gift-giving, gambling and, indeed, role reversal: in particular slaves were given licence to disrespect their masters, and they were treated to a luscious banquet. It was a time for free speech, called “December liberty” by the poet Horace. This levelling of social hierarchy was temporary and had its limits; social norms were not threatened, as the holiday would end. In our contemporary society, it would be the youngsters, living under the thumb of their parents and teachers, and in general having low societal influence, how are allowed for one night to be out all night and engage in mischief, as long as after New Year they’re back to good behaviour.
But how then to match a Roman and a Catholic tradition to something what seems to be more pagan, playing out over the Eastern provinces which fall in the Nether-Saxon language area? Lazily, I wander to the wiki article about the Germanic Yule feast. A description of the pagan Yule has sacrifices left, right and centre, and drinking and toasting. Drinking and toasting isn’t unknown to New Year’s revellers, of course, but the sacrifices are harder to place in the current context (there are other Midwinter traditions that fit, like gift giving and even the carrot for St Nicolas’ horse). With a bit of imagination we can see dragging a clunker through the village for the bonfire as a faint echo of the dragging of the yule log, the communal effort to bring the object to be burnt, the thing that sparks the new year.
The 7th C saint Eligius, who worked for 20 years to convert the pagan population of Flanders to Christianity was said to have been firm about what his listeners had to renounce: the godless and nonsensical merriment on the 1st of January, making sculptures of people and harts, holding big meals, sending round of New Year’s gifts and well-wishing toasts. A century later, Boniface still wrote in anger to the pope about the heathen noise at New Year. There are strange customs we’ve lost: our Germanic forefathers may sit on the roof with a sword with magic runes, and from which way the wind blew they’d know what the new year would bring. Others may sit on a bull’s skin on a crossroads, where they’d fall asleep. Fairies who were trekking round on New Year’s night, as it was their migration night, would predict the future in passing. (Nv/hN, 31 Dec 1985)
These bands of fairies are not unlike the Wild Hunt, and with the Wild Hunt, with supernatural activity and undead beings walking the Earth, we’re getting closer to roaming youth causing mayhem. Are these youngsters a reenactment of the Wild Hunt? I am also reminded that all of this happens at the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new; a sort of organised chaos is allowed to happen in this liminal period in which people ask each other, “What day is it again?” It’s almost as if it’s a mini-Ragnarok, a “mini-end-times’, a reenactment of when Loki, the Nordic and Germanic trickster and Lord of Mischief, turns against his fellow gods, and battles at the side of the giants, in a cataclysmic war, after which the world will resurface ‘anew and fertile’. Are our youth allowed, for one night only, to be Loki turning against their fellow people?
And what will you be up to on New Year’s Eve?