When we lived in Brussels a few years back, we made the mistake of asking the headmaster at our daughter’s school, a Catholic priest, if Europeans celebrate Halloween. His response was a hard no—that they find it “macabre” and “unpleasant,” at least the Americanized version of it. In the decade since, I have called bullshit on that assessment more than a few times. Here in Haarlem, stores are selling plenty of Halloween decorations this year. My daughter’s been invited to a big Halloween party this weekend, complete with the requisite parental back and forth over what horror movie is appropriate for 13-year-old kids. Insidious: Chapter 3? They’re still having nightmares about Chapters 1 and 2…
Also, with all due respect, a grown man in a cassock who insists that every classroom be adorned with a miniature, half-naked man nailed to a cross, and who requires children to attend hour-long masses in Latin, shouldn’t be lecturing anyone on what’s macabre or unpleasant.
I’ve been thinking about this exchange because I recently visited Haarlem’s two main churches, St. Bavo and St. Bavo. No, that’s not a typo. They’re both named after St. Bavo of Ghent. The first sits in the main square in Haarlem. It opened in 1520 and was eventually consecrated as a Catholic cathedral. That didn’t last long, because it was converted into a Protestant church during the Reformation. The other Bavo, the Basilica of St. Bavo, is now Haarlem’s Catholic cathedral. It was built in the late 18 and early 1900s. To avoid confusion, the Protestant church is also called the Grote Kerk, and the Catholic one the Koepel Kathedraal. But everyone seems to ignore this and continues to call both St. Bavo. It all makes more sense after four or five rounds in the Jopenkerk, another church in Haarlem that is now a craft brewery. In fact, after six rounds, all Christian schisms are forgotten and everyone simply revels in the fact that Bavo was a total badass—he’s always pictured as a knight with a big sword and a bird of prey. He’s not just the patron saint of Haarlem, but also of falconry. How cool is that? Then again, legend has it he ended up living in the hollow of a tree, so take it all with the requisite grain of salt.
Both of these churches are great if you want to get into the Halloween spirit, but especially the older St. Bavo. The entire floor of the church is a gravesite for Haarlem’s famous and well-heeled. To get a choice spot in the Grote Kerk, you had to pay to lay (forgive the grammatical error, but it works so much better). In fact, “the stinking rich” (de stinkende rijken) refers to wealthy people who could afford a tony burial in the church, but were not interred in the most pristine ways. No matter how much incense was burned, worshippers could still smell rotting corpses during services back in the day. Thus, the stinking rich. Feel free to share that with any trick-or-treaters this week!
If that’s not macabre enough, the Grote Kerk also features grisly reminders of the Siege of Haarlem in 1572-73. The Spanish laid waste to the city for seven months because of wavering Catholic loyalties and politics in the Netherlands during the Eighty Years’ War. Suffice to say that ordinary Haarlemmers suffered horrendously because wealthy, powerful people with ships and weapons disagreed over pressing issues like predestination and icon worship. Perhaps gold—not to mention access to trade routes and seemingly inexhaustible supplies of laborers and soldiers— also played roles? Surely not. Whatever the case, I’m sure the bombardment, famine, and plagues visited upon the people of Haarlem were worth it.
There is a Spanish cannonball still embedded in a church wall as a reminder. There’s also a plaque with some of the goriest details of the siege. The situation got so bad that the citizens of Haarlem began calling cats and dogs “roast game.” No, I will not be telling our cat, Pepper, this story. It didn’t end well for Haarlem. The city eventually surrendered and the garrison was swiftly dispatched to the afterlife by Spanish troops. Plot twist: the defeat became a successful rallying cry for other Dutch cities under siege. Hurrah?
The truth is that I like visiting the darker corners of the past preserved in these churches. For me, they’re valuable reminders that the dead used to be much closer to the living, much more tangible in our everyday lives. They were right under our feet. So close you could smell them. Talk about insidious! And yes, they’re also a gut-check about life being “brutish, nasty, and short,” as Thomas Hobbes put it. That cannonball and commemorative plaque in the Grote Kerk are not so subtle reminders of how quickly your carefully crafted life can be blown into such tiny bits that you’re forced to eat Rover or Mittens.
But sure, the headmaster was right—handing out Snickers to little kids dressed like Ewoks one night a year is what’s really macabre and unpleasant. Sarcasm aside, though, I draw the line at the “Sexy Mr. Rogers” costume. Some things, after all, are truly sacred.
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