For a long time I thought all Dutch were Protestants. That misconception was rooted in my own religious experience, living my entire life in Michigan, and my public school education as it related to world history. I had little exposure to world history in school until high school, and even then the Netherlands was only mentioned briefly in regards to the German occupation during World War II, and the subsequent war crime trials held in The Hague. As an avid reader, I gobbled up reading Anne Franks’ Diary on my own accord, and that probably was my first realization that not every Dutchman was Protestant. Somehow, the shelter of my own life as a Dutch descendent in Detroit, led me to believe that the entire homeland had been converted to the Dutch Reformed Church following the Reformation and spread of Calvinism. This was further engrained living in Michigan, where almost all Dutch immigrants and their descendents were Protestant, belonging to one of 3 religious denominations: The Reformed Church of America (RCA), the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), and to a much lesser degree the Protestant Reformed. All of these denominations stem from the RCA. Other than my father’s older sister, who married a Catholic and raised her children in the Catholic faith, I had never met any other person of Dutch descent that was not Protestant. Recently, I learned that there were some Dutch Catholic immigrants that settled in Detroit in the mid-1800s but their number was much smaller in comparison to the influx of Dutch emigrants of Protestant faith. Even my college experience, where I would learn about the Dutch masters and eventually spent three brief days touring Amsterdam did nothing to open my eyes to the diversity of religion in The Netherlands.
Then, as I began researching my family tree on my father’s Dutch ancestry side, my curiosity led me to learn more of the region of the Netherlands they emigrated from in the 1800s. My misguided conceptions soon began to unravel, when I first learned that there are now more proclaimed Catholics than Protestants living in the homeland. Next came the revelation that the once dominant Dutch Reformed Church, that was so instrumental in the decision of the first Dutch settlers in Michigan to leave their homeland, was no longer the state church, and in 2004 it actually merged with other Protestant denominations. But there was more…my father’s paternal grandparents had lived in Noord-Brabant, a province which was and still remains today predominately Catholic. So it appears that the Reyst branch of my family tree may not have been Reformed Protestants for as long as I had originally imagined. In fact my 4x great-grandfather is rumored to have been born around 1790 in the village of Holland, near Reusel-de Mierden, located in the very southern part of Noord-Brabant by the Belgium border. It is reasonable to conclude that he may have been Catholic, and either he or his descendents converted to the Dutch Reformed Church after the family settled in Zevenbergen in the 1800s, which is located in the western part of the province, close to the predominately Protestant provinces of Zuid-Holland and Zeeland. But even more enlightening…my great-grandmother, Helena de Reus, was born and lived until about 8 years old in Maastricht, Limburg, which has been predominately Catholic since 400 AD, and likely was raised Catholic. Surprisingly, it is not inconceivable that at one time my ancestors may have participated in the pre-Lenten celebration known as Carnival.
Following the Reformation in the seventeenth century, the northern predominately Protestant provinces did away with Carnival. Over time the festivities faded in the southern Catholic provinces, most likely do to pressure from the increasing influential Dutch Reformed Church. However, following World War II, the tradition of Carnival was resurrected, mostly in the cities and towns throughout Noord-Brabant and Limburg, with Maastricht regarded as the top Carnival town. The official start of Carnival in the Netherlands is November 11th (the 11th day of the 11th month) at precisely 11 minutes past 11 (called the “day of fools”) when the Council of Eleven names the Prince of Carnival. Note the significance of the number 11. Thus begins the months of preparations by each municipality. Festivities usually begin on the Sunday (sometimes Friday) before Ash Wednesday. There are parades dotted with floats containing large papier-mache figures, people dressed in bizarre costumes, some wearing painted faces or masks, music (sometimes with quite obscene lyrics), plenty of food, and lots of alcohol. This madness continues until the end of Shrove Tuesday, midnight marks the beginning of Ash Wednesday. During the Dutch Carnival, some towns in Noord-Brabant, even change their name, like Den Bosch; it is known as “Oeteldonk” or “Frog Hill” during the days of Carnival.
Like other Catholics around the world, Carnival is a time to indulge on those things that are given up during the 6 weeks of Lent, rich food being one of those forbidden items. It was common for the Dutch to use almonds in lots of recipes during the Lenten fasting period leading up to Easter. Traditionally animal foods were forbidden and almond milk was substituted for cow’s milk. A popular cookie during the Lent was Bitterkoekjes (Bitter Cookies). The name stems from the use of bitter almonds; today they are usually made with bitter almond oil.
Each day I learn how different the Dutch are from my childhood preconceptions. There is more to the Dutch then the very private, conservative, hard-working relatives and other church members that I knew growing up.