For the past four-hundred-and-fifty years, a peculiar community descends upon the political capital of the Netherlands in April. Unified by their unusual profession and mobile lifestyle, they bring with them a vast array of strange and exciting contraptions. As their flashing lights rise into the night sky, and bouncing music ripples throughout the streets, Hagenezen and Hagenaar alike make their pilgrimage to take part in the Hague’s most beloved traditions: the Kermis (fair).
But while the Kermis may be a transitory delight for the people of the Hague, for those who set up shop in Malieveld each year, it is a community, a family, a home.
Many of those working there have been immersed in the colorful surroundings their entire lives, with most having parents who were or are themselves involved in the Kermis. Up until the age of twelve many are educated in the traveling school which accompanies the familiesthroughout the Netherlands. And most, but not all, continue the family tradition when they become adults.
Yet for some, the decision to remain within the family business is not always an easy one. For Nicole Vermolen, owner of the confectionary stand Chocolate Sensation , a life outside of the Kermis once seemed probable. Having obtained a law degree and begun practicing as a qualified lawyer, the bright, flashing lights of her childhood had slowly receded to a flicker.
But something didn’t feel right, something was missing from her life. Nicole decided to find a way to merge her two worlds together, taking up a job working for the Dutch union of Kermis workers. “In my heart, I felt that I was more attracted by the Union”.
Today Nicole has, despite the occasional union work, left law behind her, and owns three separate confectionery stands; being the eighth or ninth generation of her family to work at the Kermis.
At around noon each day, near the entrance to the Kermis, the door of Nicole’s Chocolate Sensation stall starts to move upwards, revealing all the heart desires from chocolate-covered strawberries to shining red candied apples The team behind the desk immerse themselves in cutting, cleaning, unpacking and generally preparing for the day and the night ahead.
At the very edge of Malieveld, bordering the congregation of high-tech campervans and low-tech caravans, Ade Steenbegan patrols the short stretch of territory which is his Chocorad stand.
Much has changed since he began working at his parent’s stand at the age of nine. Ade now owns eight separate attractions, employs sixteen different people to manage them, and has traveled to fairs throughout Europe.
The shock of white hair upon his head and thoughtful, aged eyes are the only features which distinguish Ade as one of the Kermis’ oldest stand owners. At seventy-nine, the jaunty music, bright lights, and colorful characters of the Kermis have been the life he has known for the past seven decades.
Hands in the pockets of his green and black Camp David puffer jacket, his face framed by a tawny pair of glasses, he choreographs his game of lottery. The aim of the game is simple: Ade spins a large numbered wheel with a small ball inside it; if the ball lands on one of the numbers you have chosen, you win one of the gigantic chocolate bars which adorn the three walls.
Yet life at the fair is often physically grueling. While the days around Koningsdag are especially long, daily working days exceeding twelve hours are not uncommon. The day begins in the early afternoon and ends in the early hours of the night, repeating itself for the duration of the Kermis. “I’m standing ‘til the end, twenty one days, every day”.
Kevin Blocker, owner of Beach Party, starts his day at nine in the morning and usually finds himself at home around two in the morning. The sleepless nights, when packing down from one fair and setting up at the next are especially challenging. Despite the long hours, Kevin finds joy in his vocation: “It’s hard work but also a kind of freedom. I don’t work nine to five”.
The Kermis culminates on Koningsdag, which is one of the busiest and most important days for the people at the Kermis. Nicole, who is always at Malieveld on that day, highlights a tradition associated with it: “At 11:00 o’clock, all of the people of the fair, we come together by the door…and then we have Oranje Bitte”. This tradition is, according to Nicole, a chance to wish everyone good luck in making “a little bit of money”.
The oldest paintings and sketches of the Kermis in the Hague city archives date back to the end of the seventeenth century. One of those, dated around 1686, shows the city’s bourgeoisie and militia parading before the Prince and Princess of Orange. With all of the city’s residents being required to join the militia, the highlight of the year was taking part in this parade. In fact, still to this day, the royal nature of the Kermis has not been eschewed, with the culmination of the twenty-one days of festivities being Koningsdag (King’s Day).
The constant migration and the long working hours also foster a unique way of living and conditions for family life. As such, it is not uncommon for members of the community to marry one another. Nicole met her husband through the Kermis, with her own parents as well as her husband’s having also met the same way. “The way of living is, for somebody who is not from the fair, a little bit difficult.”
The Kermislifestyle does not only affect the choice of spouse but also results in alternative schooling for the children growing up there. The Rijden school offers hybrid teaching and is often stationed at the Kermis, to allow children below the age of twelve the chance to receive an education without being separated from their parents. “Children and the parents have to stick a little bit together because it’s a community”.
The constant movement of the Kermis, leaving the make-shift village built just a few days prior, and separating its temporary inhabitants is a cyclical occurrence. Despite the constant movement, the familiarity of the Kermis persists. Mathieu de Poorteu, a 9th generation Kermis worker noted that he “knows everyone”.
What is yet to come
Yet, for some, the future is somewhat unknown. Nicole remarks that her cousin is contemplating the continuity of her business after her only daughter decided not to follow in her mother’s footsteps. For Ade Steenbegan, some of his own children are also disinterested in becoming involved in the business. But despite the importance of the Kermis community, for Ade they are more “like neighbors”. For him, his own family comes first. And “if my children are happy, then I’m happy”.
For now, the Kermis in the Hague has turned off its music, packed the rollercoasters and the odd-sized chocolate, and is headed to spread joy elsewhere. Though, as four hundred and fifty times before- laughter, music and an unforgettable atmosphere will soon again fill the streets of the Hague.