Why do the Netherlands love orange? The full explainer

Ever wondered why the Dutch wear orange to pretty much any national occasion if the colour is not even in their flag?

Perhaps you’ve been stampeded by the hoards of orange football fans that flood the streets during big matches, or drowned in the explosion of orange that consumes every Dutch city on King’s Day. It’s truly a spectacle to behold, but what’s behind this obsession with orange? Shouldn’t they all be dressed in red, white or blue? 

Well, as it happens, orange has been a national colour in the Netherlands for hundreds of years. But before we get into that, let’s take a closer look at this carrot-coloured adoration…

Why do the Dutch wear orange on King’s Day?

If you’re not familiar with the celebration, King’s Day is a national holiday in the Netherlands during which the entire nation dresses in orange, drinks beer and celebrates the king’s birthday. And boy, do they celebrate. 

The canals overflow with boats of what look like oompa loompas drinking themselves to death, occasionally singing: Oranje boven, oranje boven, leve de koning! (Orange above all, orange above all, long live the king!) So naturally, the Dutch romance with orange is tied to the Royal Family — the House of Orange-Nassau.

The lineage began with the famous William of Orange, who was crowned Prince of Orange in 1544. With his leadership, the colour orange became a symbol of the Dutch Royal family. The popularity of old Willy comes down to much more than just being a passive heir to the throne though, so who exactly was he?

Who was William of Orange?

William of Orange, also known as William the Silent or William I, was named heir to the county of Orange by René of Chalon, who himself died with no children. William went on to lead the Dutch Revolt against the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands during the Eighty Years’ War (Dutch War of Independence, 1568–1648). His leadership was extremely influential for the rebellion, contributing to the official independence of the United Provinces of the Netherlands in 1648. 

William of Orange. Image: Adriaen Thomasz. Key/Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

He is known as the father of the Netherlands, bringing unity to the region for the first time. But he is also the first ancestor of the current Royal Family, and is thus the founder of this era of Dutch monarchy. So his name, and the bright colour that goes with it, symbolise the Dutch state.

The town of Orange, France

Orange, historically known as Oranghien by the Dutch, is a town in modern-day southern France. For many years it was a county state under the Holy Roman Empire before it became a part of France in 1713. This is where, in 1544, William of Nassau became Prince William of Orange. 

Why do Dutch football fans wear orange?

Today, many national sports teams from the Netherlands dress totally in orange, including of course the Oranje (Orange), nickname of the Dutch national football team. The army of sports fans that follow them are known as the Oranje Legioen (Orange Legion) with an almost magical ability to turn every bar, stadium and street they hit completely orange. The phenomenon is known as Oranjekoorts (Orange Fever) and becomes just as crazy as it sounds.

So, this love of orange is clearly not a small one, and it comes back to the same reason the Dutch wear the hue on King’s Day. Where orange originally symbolised the Dutch Royal Family, it soon became a symbol for Dutch national pride and the country at large. 

Why is the Dutch flag not orange?

The flag was actually originally orange, white and blue, designed by William of Orange himself. Dutch soldiers during the War of Independence even wore this colour to battle. However, at the end of this war, the orange band was changed to red. Historians have a few theories as to why.

The first theory is that the dye used to stain the flags orange was prone to changing to a red colour over time, and so to avoid confusion the flag was officially changed to red. Other historians believe the change was a result of the 1654 English-Dutch defense treaty, which banned any member of the House of Orange from becoming head of the Dutch state.

Theory three is that the new Dutch flag was based on the Bavarian coat of arms since between 1354 and 1433 the county of Holland had been ruled by their House of Wittelsbach.

But regardless of the switch, orange stuck around in Dutch hearts and continues to represent proud, loud Dutchness in all its quirks and charms. 

When not to wear orange in the Netherlands

Wearing orange in the Netherlands will certainly win you brownie points on almost any day of the year. Except perhaps this day — April 30. 

Before the king’s succession in 2013, King’s Day was in fact Queen’s Day, in honour of Queen Beatrix. It was celebrated on April 30 but of course switched to April 27 when the king came to the throne. But since the change, many tourists have still arrived in the Netherlands fully dressed in orange on April 30 to celebrate the queen. These oblivious enthusiasts became known as vergistoeristen — mistake tourists. Oh dear.

In general though, the Dutch are not particularly nationalistic and don’t wear orange on Prinsjedag (Budget Day) or Remembrance Day. You might see a little orange on Liberation Day, but certainly not to the degree of real Orange Fever. The colour is mainly reserved for sporting events and King’s Day. 

Other countries that use orange because of the Netherlands

As the Dutch gained political power and sailed across the globe to colonise and conquer, their influence left substantial marks in the places they went. This includes their use of the colour orange, which leaked into many flags, names and symbols we still see today.

The South African Boers and orange

Between 1652 and 1795, the Dutch East India Company controlled the Eastern Cape frontier of Southern Africa. Many employees of the company retired here and bought farmlands, as well as African and Asian slaves to run the farms. 

But in 1806, the Cape colony fell under British rule, who abolished slavery in the region in 1834. The Dutch Boers (farmers), tired of paying taxes to the British and refusing to give up their slaves, departed on the Great Trek across Southern Africa to establish their own settlements where they could freely rule themselves.

The Afrikaaner Boers thus established, among others, the Orange Republic, almost smack bang in the middle of modern-day South Africa. It became an independent republic in 1854, and of course, their flag had orange and white stripes, with the Dutch flag in the top left corner, for which the Dutch king gave his blessing.

The Orange Free State flag. Image: David Benbennick/Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

No points for guessing where the Orange River, which runs through this state, got its name from. Fast forward past the Boer Wars, and the Orange Republic became the Orange Free State province under the Union of South Africa (1910). 

Between 1928 and 1994, the Union of South Africa, which later became the Republic of South Africa, had the flag depicted below. You’ll notice the orange, white and blue stripes of the old Dutch flag, as well as the Orange Free State’s flag in the middle there.

The flag of South Africa between 1928 and 1994. Image: Parliament of South Africa/Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

After Apartheid, this flag changed to the stunning multi-coloured flag that South Africa has today (with zero orange) and the Orange Free State became simply the Free State. But the Orange River, which happens to be the longest one in the country, kept its name.

Irish Protestants and orange

Steering back to Europe now, believe it or not the orange stripe in the Irish flag also has its links to William of Orange. This colour represents the minority Irish Protestants who supported William of Orange, and were also British Unionists. 

During the Battle of the Boyne, Protestant King William of Orange faced up against the Catholic King James II of England, Scotland and Ireland. Irish Protestants, who were in conflict with their Catholic countrymen, opted to instead support William of Orange. As a result, they adopted the colour orange as a symbol of their Protestant Irish identity.

The Irish flag. Image: Éire/Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

This is in contrast to the green of the Irish flag, which symbolises Catholic Irish republicanism. The white in the middle symbolises peace between these two groups.

Carrots

Ok, this is not a nation or a flag, but did you know that the orange colour of this vegetable is of Dutch doing? Carrots were originally purple, red, or white but the Dutch bred the root to become the distinct orange colour that we know it for today. And of course, this change in colour was a tribute to old William of Orange. 

You’ll also hear the history of William of Orange in the Dutch national anthem, and sometimes see a strip of orange flown beside the Dutch national flag

So there you have it! At first what appears to be a random Dutch preference for all things orange actually has a very complex history of meaning behind it, one which has reached into the far corners of the globe and Dutch tradition alike. 

Have you experienced Orange Fever? What do you think of the Dutch obsession with this colour? Let us know in the comments below.

Feature image: Martin Abegglen/Flickr/CC2.0
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in September 2020 and was fully updated in March 2021 for your reading pleasure. 

Emily Burger
Emily Burgerhttps://emilycburger.wixsite.com/expression
Emily grew up in South Africa but has also lived in Egypt, the UK, Canada and now the Netherlands. She first came here for her Bachelors in Arts and Culture at Maastricht University and soon fell in love with the land of canals, clogs and cheese. When she's not daydreaming about sci-fi movies or countries yet to explore, you can find her writing for DutchReview.

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