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Carbide shooting and other Dutch New Year's insanities

By Adriana Stuijt     Dec 29, 2008 in Lifestyle
Every New Year's a total insanity grips Friesland. Families drag all their unwanted household goods to the centre of town and torch a bonfire. Youth groups steal statues off their sockets. And then there's carbide-shooting with milk cans. Is it all legal?
There's no pagan ritual involved here, as far as I was able to determine, the huge bonfires often lit quite illegally in the middle of Friesland's many small towns and villages every New Year's Eve have absolutely nothing to do with the pre-Christian Druid religion, when bonfires were lit on high points in the landscape to honour the sun. Apparently the Frisians just torch all their unwanted old rubbish on New Year's eve, just for fun. And the municipalities and the cops have to work hard every year to try and stop them. And I have no explanation for the thefts of the statues at all. Everybody has a different explanation of its history.
Carbide milk can shooting:
But the most fun for the Frisian boys and youths - unless the canals freeze over, when all of Friesland takes to the ice enmasse, skating between all the eleven cities in an amazing amateur event -- -- is the way in which organised youth groups form each year in each small Frisian town and village and hold carbide-shooting competitions with each other. In the past, they used to just compare notes in telephone-bragging sessions, nowadays, they put their accomplishments on YouTube.
Of course there's also a lot of other near-illegal activities going on to titillate even the most timid souls in Friesland. At least once a year many Frisians actually form secret clubs which are determined to break the law and get away with it. Their New Year's clubs, highly organised and usually all-male, go around carefully stealing statues off their sockets and placing them in strange, out of the way places each year on New Year's Day, and carrying out other pranks.
One year they even travelled all the way to Brussels in Belgium to hijack the infamous Manneke Pis statue and deposit it in Leeuwarden.These cat-and-mouse games surrounding the New Year's Clubs often become part of the folklore in Friesland over the years...
Carbide shooting clubs
However it's the carbide-shooting which is the most loudly obvious, the most obnoxiously terrifying for people not familiar with the custom, and also the most satisfying for the youngsters.
Carbide-shooting creates a huge noise without actually using any explosives. The refer to the carbide rock chunks they use as "Boer Symtex' but it's not an explosive, it's a gas. It's also much cheaper and a lot more challenging than shooting off all those expensive and increasingly illegal fireworks - carbide is much cheaper and setting it off is very challenging. It's a skill which has to be passed on from father to son. The thrill lies in both the exceedingly loud noise, the skills one develops while creating this noise, and the air of illegality which hangs over all these events.
What is carbide-shooting?
Here's how it works, according to several neighbour boys who are keen members of the local irregular carbide-shooting club. The first requirement is to beg, borrow or steal traditional Dutch, steel milk cans with lids which can close the can off airtight.
At the bottom of the can, a 6mm hole is drilled. You place the milk can on an outer tyre or something similar to point it upwards. You then get your torch ready: it must be very long so that you don't blow your fingers off. That does happen every year to at least a few kids who didn't pay attention to the rules...
Then you dump some clumps of carbide stone into the milk can, add a bit of water and close the lid at once. You then have to know how long - exactly to the second -- you must wait before the gas is formed. Then you light the carbide-cannon by waving the torch across the 6mm hole. And whammo! when the lid flies off it causes a loud and very satisfying bang.
The flying lids have been known to injure livestock and people too - but this also forms part of the challenge, the boys tell me -- to line up the milk-can pointing towards the nearest houses without actually hitting them with the flying lids: you are considered a masterly carbide shottist if the lid lands just short of a targetted house.
It's like being in a war zone
Carbide is not an explosive at all, is a porous kind of stone which, when placed in water, gives off a large amount of gas. And it's this energetic gas which, when lit by a torch, shoots off the lid of the milk can, creating a loud bang. They don't want to destroy anything - but the result, especially from afar, sounds as one is in the middle of a war zone. It terrifies dogs especially: one of my neighbour's dogs got so scared that it ran at full clip for 20km and didn't stop running on the bike-path until it was stopped by an animal-welfare officer.
Carbide shooting, the local boys tell me, is an 'old northern tradition' just like the annual New Year's bonfires, , so the animal population is sent into a frenzy of fear each year while these 'carbideguns' blast away for hours on end.
The local municipalities have over the years taken matters in hand and started supervising the events under strictly controlled safety conditions. And the boys are also fed hefty dollops of oliebollen (doughnuts) to keep them firing on all their available cylinders.
Carbide-shooting is a pretty complicated business - the 'shottist' has to wait for exactly the correct length of time before applying the fire torch. If they wait too long, it all just fizzles out. What thrills the kids is the deafening bang with which the lid flies off the milk can.
It's also much cheaper to shoot off carbide milk cans than ordinary fireworks: the stuff costs about 5 Euro per kilogram. A business in Holwerd, a small town near Dokkum will even deliver it to your home for that amount. It's not illegal.
But it's freezing hard right now....
However this year, all bets on carbide-shooting competitions and statue-stealing events might be off. The "Dutch Disease" is about to hit our province big-time: if it keeps on freezing. The kids will be far too busy doing what they love to do the very best here.
For the past two days, the kids and their parents here in Dokkum can be seen eying the canals freezing over, testing the thickness of the ice, throwing the occasional stick - and getting their ice skates ready.
The temperature has been below freezing for the past three days now. Who knows... will it really happen this year? Nobody wants to get their hopes up just yet - it's early days, the wind could change, the thaw could set in. But if all the canals freeze over to a specific depth to allow a large number of ice-skaters, absolute insanity grips Friesland.
My town of Dokkum is at the half-way point of the amateur Friesland Eleven-Cities Tour ice-skating marathon - over 124 miles of icy canals. If you combined the endurance demands of the New York Marathon with the grueling climate conditions of the Alaskan Iditarod, you'd get a sense of the Dutch ice-skating race called the Eleven Cities Marathon.
Known as the Elfstedentocht in Dutch, the one-day tour is an obsession for very one of its 16,000 registered participants (all members of local Friesland amateur skating clubs) and the millions more who follow it worldwide.
It's also a very nationalistic event, even though nobody would admit to that, because it serves to bind all the towns along the route together into one huge mass of people. women's clubs, church clubs, sports clubs, all just as busy as bees, keeping the participants warm with hot soup and chocolate and plenty of rolls and oliebollen, and cheering them on far into the night until the very last person has made it across the finish line.
And while there's always a winner of course - one year two men skated triumphantly across the finish line, hand in hand -- the main thing is not to win but to complete this gruelling marathon.
It is only held in Friesland only when the ice freezes over the 124-mile track of lakes and canals that makes up the route are frozen solidly. The last tour took place January 4, 1997.
This fabled marathon, started officially 90 years ago, but which had been undertaken unofficially for centuries before that, has taken place just 15 times this past century; yet, it's become the biggest phenomenon in Dutch sports. During a cold snap that made the tour possible one year, the white caps of the North Sea froze over.
In 1929, winner Karst Leemburg finished in conditions so severe a frostbitten toe had to be amputated.
Because the competition hinges on weather conditions, lead-time is always short and the preparations furious. Wind chill, skating surfaces and ice thickness determine if and how the tour is run. Experts sometimes perform ice transplants to close holes in the route...
Of course ice-skating has been a popular past-time in Europe for at least 1,000 years. Our forebears had just as much fun with it, too. They used to tie sharped long bones beneath their feet to glide on them.
These first skates were called 'glissers'. such ice-skaters, apparently very rowdy, were already described by Thomas Becket's biographer William Fitzstephen in London in 1174. By the 19th century, three types of ice-skates with metal sliders were in use in The Netherlands: the Holland curl-skate, the South Holland ice-rink skate, and the Frisian fast-rider. It's the fast-riders which are of course used in the Eleven Cities Marathon, with another Dutch invention: the Olympic Klap-skate. But that's another story.
More about Iceskating, Carbide shooting, Frisian eleven-cities marathon, Bonfires
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