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Word of the day: kermis (fair)

Shock, horror! Where has the REUZENRAD (big wheel) gone? Okay, there is a machine that looks like a giant mixer, swinging screaming people around and around, but there is nothing that resembles a Ferris Wheel. And what is a KERMIS (fair) without a big wheel, I ask you?

Some fifteen years ago Yolande, my daughter, then only nine or ten, wanted to visit the Haagse KERMIS on the Malieveld. It was Prinsjesdag and Queen Beatrix had held her speech in the Ridderzaal (Knight’s Hall) and opened a new year’s work for parliament.

My SCHOONMOEDER (mother-in-law) from Ireland was visiting and she wanted to come along to the Fair. Personally I could never see the fun in the KERMIS affair, but that year I didn’t want to be a spoilsport. So there we went, the four of us: mother-in-law, wife, daughter and myself.

When we arrived on the Malieveld we all saw the sky clouding over with extremely angry clouds but, never mind, we were intent on having fun. We went into the SPOOKHUIS (haunted house) which wasn’t at all spooky. We bought a SUIKERSPIN (candy floss) which made our teeth rattle and I tried my luck at shooting in order to win a teddy bear for my daughter. In vain.

In the dead centre of the Kermis was the big wheel and of course we bought tickets. Up we went and down and up again while I was trying to hide my fear of heights. Many more darker clouds were approaching. The wheel stopped at its highest point so that we could enjoy the gloomy view of the Haagse Bos on one side and the city centre on the other.

At first the dark clouds were leaking small raindrops on us, but very quickly the drizzle turned into hail stones, large icy stones. And then there was a cold gust of wind, flashes of lightning and cracks of thunder. Yolande looked like a ghost. And so did the other two ladies in my car. I held on to the steel pole in the middle of the swinging car and at the same time I was trying to protect my shivering daughter by holding against me. In a few seconds we were all drenched. But that wasn’t the worst. In these moments when we were hovering in our fragile car over the Malieveld I was convinced that some force of nature would send a killer bolt of lightning to our car.

Then the wheel started turning again. Ever so slowly. It took ages before we landed on the grassy ground of the Malieveld. That was the last time I went to the KERMIS.

The Hague has been famous for its KERMIS from the fourteenth century on. People came from far and near to the Hague fairs which were yearly held in May. When Stadtholder William III had become king of England (Mary was his Queen) he is said to have uttered the following desire from London in May 1689: ‘Het is warm weer; het is nu Haegsche kermis. O, dat men nu soo, gelijck een vogel door de lucht, eens konde overvliegen!’ (The weather is hot; it is KERMIS in The Hague. O, I wish that we could now, like a bird in the sky, fly over.)

Why was the KERMIS so popular in previous centuries? There are several reasons. KERMIS, then, was an unregulated street market. People from all walks of life, old as well as young, would flock together to enjoy the freaky attractions, the sweet foods and each other. KERMIS provided rare moments of carnal freedom and fun.

The English word ‘fair’ was imported into the isles from Old French ‘feire’ which in its turn was derived from Latin ‘feriae’ (religious festivals, holidays).

The Dutch word KERMIS is a medieval word too. It was derived from the words ‘KERK’ (church) and ‘MIS’ (mass). Originally it was a religious feast but later it meant annual fair. The ‘kermesse’ in Flanders was so popular that the French started using the word and even today you can still enjoy them in northern France.

Neither the ‘fair’ nor the KERMIS have anything to do with holy feasts of churches anymore these days. However, that day fifteen years ago, when we were holding to a tiny car amidst bolts of lightening and bursts of showers, I narrowly escaped becoming religious on that most godless of all events, the Haagse KERMIS.