IN a country where the Queen and the Crown Princess take to the ice as soon as it is strong enough to hold them, where Father takes Mother and the children skating all day at the expense of work and so-called other duties, and where the astonished Spaniards were defeated on the Zuider Zee by troops which swooped down upon them over frozen water, skating is never taken casually, and is certainly never looked upon merely as an incidental sport. It is much more than that: it implies holidays, festivity, release, abandon. While it lasts it usurps all one’s time and being; it becomes a necessary though pleasant duty.
Holland’s climate and flatness have made passionate skaters out of Hollanders. There are no hills for skiing or sledding; but there are endless stretches of water, miles upon miles, crossing and recrossing every bit of land every few acres — wide canals, narrower ones, down to mere ditches only a few yards wide. The country is utterly level, and the towns and villages one has seen and counted by the scores from dikes and other artificial promontories are suddenly all within reach, though the farthest be fifteen miles away. One has to skate.
But even Holland has its specialized paradise for skating — the far-northern province of Friesland. From Friesland come the best skates as well as the best skaters, mighty fair-haired men, tall fair gray-eyed women, all shaped as if they had been built only for tireless swiftness on the ice. In Friesland, skating days are complete holidays; all shops, stores, and schools close. Even the aged are on the ice, and even the very pious and religious. In the southern provinces skating is looked upon as a worldly sport, but in Friesland it is next to godly. There all theological and ethical arguments fall before the passion for the sport. Furthermore, Friesland is a lake country. Its many wade lakes connected by a vast network of canals, its amazingly level and treeless landscape, make it a land made to order for skating as well as sailing. It is but natural that everybody should skate. One learns when one is four years old, and one continues to the very tag end of life, till the bones grow too brittle or the joints too stiff.
I was born and brought up in an old Frisian town; naturally I cannot forget skating days. Besides, Frisian skating traditions are likely to continue unchanged as long as frosts last and as long as the straight canals and wide lakes freeze over. Skating is part of the blood and bones and muscles; it figures in all the winter thinking. And skating days are the great spontaneous holidays of Friesland.
We youngsters had our summer vacation, of course, a brief ten days in late August, sensibly terminated by the Queen’s birthday; while the vacation lasted, the school buildings were scoured and then decorated for the Queen’s feast. Our winter holidays, however, were entirely determined by the weather. Only heavy frosts could set their time and duration. They might come in December, more likely in January; if not by the middle of February, we gave up all hope. For winters are brief and mild in Friesland; besides, all the water in the canals is almost as brackish as sea water — naturally, since the Frisians live several feet below sea level.
Waiting for the ice to grow strong was tantalizing. We watched every film from late November on, first on the puddles, then on the smaller ditches. We prayed for ice, encouraged it when it came, tested it lovingly. Sometimes it disappeared again before it was half an inch thick, perhaps not to return for several weeks — perhaps, we feared, not all winter. We sought consolation in tales of old men who remembered ice that lasted from November to February, times when even the North Sea froze over. Such winters were always in the past, but they might come again. When the new ice remained and grew thicker, however, we became increasingly restive; and so did our parents. Impatiently we took our skates from their summer hiding places and put them at hand for sharpening.
Except for the maimed and the sick, we all skated, of course; we had to, we wanted to — all but our preacher and his children, who came from the south of Holland and looked upon skating as a devil’s pastime. When we were four years old, sometimes younger, our parents or older brothers or sisters took us to a safe ditch where the ice was strong, strapped a pair of skates to our shoes, put a chair in front of us, and told us to push off and learn to skate. Then they left us, to go skating on the wide canals with older and swifter people. We struggled on our ditch with other novices, for a few hours supported by the chair, but very soon on our own feet. We learned stubbornly and hurriedly, for none of us wanted to be the last to graduate from the narrow ditch.
After a few hours of this (no one went home to rest), our relatives might reappear, watch and instruct us for a few minutes, and disappear again. Two days on a ditch was plenty. Then we graduated to a narrow canal, and there, with older children, struggled valiantly to skate fast, with wide, even strokes. After a week of this, if we met our parents’ test, we were allowed to go to the wide canals, where we could safely hold our own with the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of older people. We hurried to qualify, for the ice might last only a week, and to reach the large canals during one’s first skating season was everyone’s goal.
Of course, by the time we started going to school we were five, and bigcanal skaters — hence our very ardent watch over ice and frost. It was not the potential vacation that mattered so much. Vacation was simply a necessary adjunct to skating; everything bowed before ice. No regulation of a South Holland schoolmaster could restrain us, certainly no compulsory midweek catechism classes of our pastor.
After several abortive attempts, at last the ice would grow strong enough. Long before the wide wind-swept canals were covered, we had already tested it on the small canals and ditches near the school. Testing it meant jumping on it with a good heavy thud of our wooden shoes and running across it to the other bank. If the new ice withstood the test, all was fine. If it did not, and we broke through and nearly drowned, the pastime itself was sufficiently risky and enjoyable — something like a consolation prize in case the ice should not get strong enough for skating.
When the small canals had withstood our tests we would go on to the wide ones. All the men of the town would already be there. In a town depending almost wholly on fishing, the men passed the winter in enforced idleness; they had plenty of time to be there at the canal, testing the ice hour by hour. One hour might make a world of difference. Ice barely strong enough to hold a large dog by ten in the morning might be considered ready to support a grown man by noon, and by evening any number of people.
First of all, dogs were tempted to cross the ice. If it held them, young boys were enticed to pick pennies from the ice in the centre of the canal. If it supported a fifty-pound boy, the men reasoned, it would certainly support an eighty-pound boy on skates who could skim more swiftly over and away from dangerous parts. If the eighty-pound boy survived without mishap, men twice as heavy and twice as swift were ready for the ice by midafternoon. And, because frost usually increased by evening, dusk would find half of the young fisherman population and a goodly portion of the young women swooping over dangerously billowing and creaking ice. Naturally some were destined to break through. Even drownings were not infrequent; but that was all part of the game.
By evening everybody in town was prepared for the next day. By midnight the first reckless skaters had broken through the ice, but also every canal-boat owner had been warned to remain where he was with his boat, no matter how precious his cargo, for the all-important ice had to be kept perfect. And every canal-boat owner obeyed willingly.
The next morning we were ready at dawn. Our skates had been sharpened; there remained only the formality of running to school and handing the powerless schoolmasters a note signed by Father saying that because of ice and skating it was impossible to send Renze, Dirk, Jantje, or Grietje to school. The teachers would face empty desks, or a room perhaps sparsely populated by the pastor’s pale children.
Then the teachers, too, would furtively finger their skates in their desk drawers, and before long they would be telling the pastor’s children very delicately that it was impossible to hold classes with so few in attendance. A few minutes later our schoolmasters would be on the ice with us and at least half the town’s population.
Half the population, but not yet 95 per cent, for this was only the first day of the indefinite holidays. But by noon all shops and stores would be closed. The town crier warned everyone. All servants and apprentices were dismissed, and mothers started to prepare hearty stews and soups which could brew all afternoon while they went skating themselves. Every street had at least one decrepit old granny who for a few pennies would willingly keep an eye on the stews. By noon Mother would be ready for the ice. Naturally Father had been skating since before dawn, if his duties at all allowed. Only the poor skate grinders were kept at their tasks till midafternoon; then they too struck.
The typical skating holiday had started. The disabled and old set up booths and tents, each one with its red, white, and blue banner, and sold chocolate, coffee, oranges, and figs. People too old to skate and too dignified to have a booth sat around fires on the bank, watched, smoked, and told about days when they had been young and swift and had skated to all the eleven cities of the province in one day, faster and better than any of these youngsters could do it. The town was deserted, except for babes, invalids, and the stew watchers.
Let us assume that all goes well — that the frosty weather continues. The ice billows no longer, or only a little when groups of thirty and forty, one behind the other, swing over it. The appearance of married women on the ice marks the real beginning of the festivities. Of course, for half an hour or so Mother has to skate slowly with Father to get all the kinks and creaks out of her body. During such periods we children swoop around her and demonstrate our skill. After the half hour’s trial period is over, Father demonstrates his best skating style, and all we youngsters try vainly to emulate him. We hardly expect to succeed, for Father takes strokes of fifteen feet or longer, and, with his hands behind his back, swoops like a bird, lean, black and swift, over the ice.
Every bit of superfluous clothing is shed. A light sweater, trousers clasped snugly around the legs, skates strapped to light leather shoes, and one is dressed for the ice. But never wooden shoes or wooden skates — there all American illustrations of Dutch skating go wrong. Skates are of steel, never of wood or silver, and they do not have the fancy curved toes they had centuries ago, with the well-meant purpose of keeping women from tripping over their voluminous skirts. Women now wear shorter skirts for skating, and straight unornamental skates.
After Father’s demonstration, we are all ready for the real skating test. Father stands still, his left hand behind him. Mother comes next, putting her right hand in his and her left behind her back, where the oldest of the children holds it and puts his hand back for the next, till all, to the very youngest, have been accommodated, regardless of sex. There may be a line of twelve or fourteen, though large families are scarce in Holland. When we are all in position, Father gives the signal and we start. First, one tentative nottoo-long swoop with the right foot. We all follow in unison. Next a somewhat wider stroke with the left; the whole line swings leftward. In a few strokes Father achieves his correct swing and rhythm at the maximum speed possible with such a train in tow.
We then swoop on for hours, our little legs struggling valiantly to hold fourteen-foot strokes first on one foot, then on the other. We have support, of course, from those ahead of us, and if Mother can keep up with Father, and our older brothers and sisters with her, we can do the same. We swing along at terrific speed, almost too fast to breathe properly, certainly too fast to look around. Before long, however, we become aware of other families sweeping past, or trying to race us, and find that we have enough breath for greetings and shouts. On we go, perhaps for three miles, stopping only at some booth for a cup of hot chocolate, pretending we are giving Father, or at least Mother, a chance to rest.
We never stopped long, however; time was too precious. And when Father had replenished his supply of pennies to throw to the men who swept snow off the ice we were ready once more. Of course we had a destination. We had our ice-relatives — relatives who lived in villages several miles away, and whom we seldom saw during the year. We called on them only during skating time; that was tacitly understood. The more ice-relatives the merrier, for they in turn might be on their way to visit us, and on the complicated network of canals it was easy to miss them, but with several relatives in reserve we were bound to catch at least one or two of them on their home canals.
After a fine jaunt of perhaps fifteen miles, we were in need of rest. Naturally we did not expect our relatives to take us to their homes — that was unheard of. They were on the ice and enjoyed it as much as we did. We met them and stayed on the ice. The women folks went to a tea booth and over several cups of hot tea discussed recent births, deaths, and marriages, with their eyes warily on the clock, for an hour was sufficient to waste from skating. Father, with the older male relatives, would go to another booth to drink something more hearty, a brandy or two, as many as he thought he might need to refuel himself in order to carry his family back home again. We children were supposed to rest. After one cup of hot chocolate, however, released from the rhythmic swinging strokes of Father and free to twist our bodies our own angular ways, we matched our skill with sundry cousins.
An hour later we would be on our way again. The relatives would promise to call on us the following week if the ice lasted, the first skating day next year if it should not last. Father, renewed in strength, led his troop back, Mother dealing out the latest gossip, we children intent on keeping our strokes long and even, our eyes open for friends. Tired, we reached our canals again, but, released from our parents, we skated our own way for another hour. Father also would take a few swift miles in his stride, while Mother started for home, to prepare the meal. By dusk nearly all the women had disappeared. From the houses rose appetizing odors of stews and soups, and before long we were ready for a tremendous dinner, then for bed, and, by dawn, for skating again.
Activity on the ice did not cease at the coming of dark. Rather, it increased, but freed from the noise and turmoil of children. We, lying fast asleep, knew nothing of what went on. It did not matter that Father and Mother went back to the canal after dinner and skated another hour or two in the moonlight. Even if there was no moonlight, the treeless flat land never grew entirely dark, certainly not dark enough to interfere with skating — just dark enough to make courting on the ice perfect. Evening, on the ice, was courting time, more so than at any other season of the year. A poor skater, no matter how excellent his looks or wit, had better reserve his secondary charms for the summer season.
Open courting, unless parents assented, and unless it was understood that the couple intended to marry, was frowned upon. A few furtive meetings on the street, austere gatherings with parents present, were the greatest leeway any suitor could ask for. But skating time changed everything. The night and the ice belonged to youth. They could go where they wanted, choose whom they wanted. Everybody else was too preoccupied with skating to interfere. They themselves were supposed to be too busy skating to get into mischief. At least, that was the argument, and usually it held water; for the rest, the older people closed eyes and ears tolerantly and kept away from the side canals where the courters skated. The next day was a holiday, and the next, and perhaps the next. Life was brief, the skating season briefer. Let them skate all night. This was freedom.
Only on Sundays we did not skate. We sat in warm churches, felt puffed and hot, and listened drowsily to our pale pastor, who was telling us that skating was of the devil, that one should use one’s time more devoutly. It did not bother us. We were not even astonished. He was unreal, a man from another world, not of our skating world. Instead, we wondered drowsily why we should not get up at midnight and go skating. Then Sunday was over. After all, we had been permitted to skate till midnight Saturday, preparatory to this forced cessation on Sunday. When our pastor thundered and ordered us to come to midweek catechism, we were not concerned. By midweek, thaw might have set in. That would be bad enough. Yes, we would come to catechism; but not if there was ice, of course. Even our parents did not expect that.
Ice holidays were perfect. They were dictated wholly by the elements, and were completely spontaneous. No human power laid down rules and regulations. Naturally, they were usually brief. Two weeks were plenty. Two weeks of such intense feasting and enjoyment, taken in big doses, and in a race against thaw, were really all we asked for. If the ice lasted longer, fine; but normal activities were resumed again. Schools, shops, and stores reopened, and we were content to do our skating in off hours. Even the termination of the holiday was almost spontaneous, whether or not the weather was responsible.
If the skating season lasted longer than two weeks, the skating contests started. They never began sooner, however, for then they would have interfered with individual freedom on the ice; competitive skating was tolerated only when the greater pleasure of free skating was somewhat exhausted. The contests were always for straight, fast skating. Dutch skates are not made for fancy strokes; Dutch canals are only for straight courses and speed. One cannot even make sudden turns on Dutch skates. To stop, one digs the sharply pointed heel into the ice. A whole party digging in for a stop causes a thunderous rasp. American skates are rounded in the back, as I discovered to my sorrow when I tried to come to a stop on them by digging in my heels.
There was something typically Dutch and domestic about the contests. There were banners and flags, of course, and the drinking booths increased, but the winners were awarded bags of beans, hams, loads of peat, anything useful, anything that could be turned over to the needy, should the winner care to do so. There were contests for every age, for both sexes. Only the contests for men were different. In them the best skaters from surrounding towns competed, and the rewards were in cash or trophies.
But eventually thaw came, and it always came fast. When it did set in we made our last few desperate attempts at skating, continuing till we went ankle-deep through water, till the ice was ready to give way. Snow is infrequent in Holland. The thin layers are swept away by men stationed everywhere along the canals, who are rewarded by coins tossed to them in passing. For the rest, all class and social distinctions are forgotten. The Queen skates, the burgomaster, the junkman and washerwoman — everybody. This is a time for enjoyment, not for thought, not for grievances, certainly not for servility.
Slurring through ankle-deep water on the thawing ice, one thinks of a year hence, sometime when there’ll be ice again. We are tired now. There has been plenty of it. Still, we hope mildly for another week in February — a heavy late frost, perhaps. After all, it happened in the olden days.