Holland, herring and a taste of home

How the city’s Dutch population keeps old customs alive while adjusting to life in Denmark

There’s no denying the importance of integrating and building a new network when you move abroad. But for the Dutch-Danish association in Copenhagen, maintaining ties and old traditions from home is just as important – which is why the group gathers each year to choke back soused herring and gin.

The custom is part of the annual Leidens Ontzet celebration, which commemorates the siege and subsequent relief of the town of Leiden in 1574 during the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands. Centuries later, the relief is still remembered on October 3 each year. 

As the group’s events organiser Hans van Pernis explained, herring is often eaten on the holiday as legend states that the rebels who relieved Leiden fed the inhabitants with herring and white bread. The fish is traditionally soaked in a preserving liquid and accompanied by the Dutch spirit jenever, from which modern-day gin is said to have evolved.

“You take the herring by the tail and swallow it whole, and then you follow it with the gin,” van Pernis explained. “Because as you know, fish have to swim.”

While the customs might vary slightly according to the area, he speculated, the celebrations are mostly consistent worldwide. 

“If you go to a celebration with the Dutch association in New York, Stockholm, or anywhere in the world, I’m sure you would see quite the same thing that we do here in Denmark,” van Pernis said. 

But Leidens Ontzet is just one of the activities the Dutch-Danish association puts on each year. The organisation consists of approximately 185 members around Copenhagen, many of whom gather monthly at the Globe Irish Pub to reminisce about home and foster connections for the future.

“We meet regularly to speak our own language, talk about the good old days in Holland and keep our traditions going,” van Pernis said. “But we also help those who are new to Denmark to build up a network, share tips and get advice – from things like where to buy cheap food to how to get a CPR number or find a job.”

While van Pernis noted the importance of integrating into Danish society, he also contended that maintaining connections to home can be beneficial for an expat’s sense of belonging.  

“We’re a group that speaks both Dutch and Danish,” he went on. “I think it’s important to keep your Dutch identity and meet other Dutch people while living abroad.” 

But he had one word of warning: “Don’t try the gin. It’s terrible.”