Have you ever wondered how the stork became a symbol of childbirth in the Netherlands? Are you curious as to why your Dutch friends put up storks outside their houses when a baby is born? Here is a brief history on how that tradition came to be!

You’ve probably heard a Dutch parent tell their kid that babies are delivered to them by “ooievaars” whenever they are asked where babies come from. For a long time the stork has been seen as a lucky charm, and at the beginning of the last century, has become the symbol of childbirth in the Netherlands. The Dutch say that ‘the stork has visited’ when a child is born and in some parts of the Netherlands where tradition is still adhered to, new parents often put a (toy) stork in their front yard. This shows that the stork is no longer a story that parents tell little kids, it has now become an integral ingredient in the beautiful way of life that is Dutch tradition.

Image: Flickr/Marcel Oosterwijk

Origins

Of course, most parents hope never to see the day when their children would ask where babies come from – and that was no different in eighteenth-century Germany. To conceal the truth, many stories arose – sometimes quite far-fetched – about children who literally grew on trees. And just like that, the myth of the stork as a child-bearer came to be.

Centuries ago the return of the stork was seen as a sign that spring was approaching. The stork, in fact, symbolised a time when the long, dark and cold winter had just become a thing of the past. A time when farmers could start letting their cattle back on the fields and working their lands again. The stork is traditionally regarded as a lucky charm, not only in the Netherlands but also in countries such as Turkey, Morocco, Greece, Germany and Estonia – people think that a stork brings happiness. They believe the bird to be very similar to humans: it cares for its young ones and when the young ones die, it mourns their loss. In the Middle Ages, people in Germany even believed that the stork could prevent fires and as a result, storks could be found in virtually all homes.

There are several theories about why the stork delivers babies to families. In Greek mythology, storks did not bring babies, they took them away! The story goes that a woman had been turned into a stork as punishment for something horrible and then she came back to “kidnap” her own child. In Egypt, it was thought that the soul of a man was related to a bird. When the storks returned, it meant the return of a soul.

There is also a German folk legend from the Middle Ages in which storks bring babies to families. The babies were directly given to the mothers or dropped into the house through the chimney. The last delivery method was, of course, not very ideal. It meant that when a baby was born disabled or dead, parents had to blame the stork because they had dropped the baby through the chimney. But how did the storks know who wanted a baby and who did not? The women of the village always put sweets on their windowsills to tell the storks that they wanted a baby! What a story right?

So how did the stork become associated with childbirth in the Netherlands?

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A few years ago, on my birthday, I remember getting a toy stork from a Dutch friend of mine. He gave it to me for good luck. Funny enough, I didn’t know how superstitious the Dutch were or that the stork was still seen as a lucky charm in the present time. The symbolism of the stork as a bird that ‘brings’ babies dates from 1909 when Princess Juliana van Oranje was born. The Dutch royal family received a special birthday “card” announcing the birth of the child. On the card were a picture of Noordeinde Palace and a stork on a nest with a baby in it. The stork was calling out to an image of Wilhelmina on the card, with the announcement that it had brought a child for her. Since then, everyone in the Netherlands wanted a stork on their child’s birth announcement card.

Additionally, talking about sex and having children was a taboo in the early 20th century. When children asked their parents where babies came from, they were told that storks brought them or that they were kept somewhere in the earth and dug ‘up’ through a hollow tree or special stone! Preposterous right? Of course, kids also wanted to know why their mothers were lying in bed right about the same time the stork brought the babies, and they were told that they had stepped on a nail while walking outside!

Fast forward to present day Netherlands, people still tell their children that storks are the ones who bring little babies to their mothers. They still believe in the good luck that storks bring. Although parents still find it a little difficult to tell their children where babies come from, discussing sex and childbirth isn’t seen as a taboo as it once was. So when next you see a stork in the neighbourhood, just know that a baby has been delivered to some lucky family, somewhere out there!

And just out of curiosity, when will a stork be visiting your family?

Or has it already visited?

Some Fun Facts About the Stork

  • Dutch name is Ooievaar and the Latin name is Ciconia.
  • Other popular names include Eiber, Uiver, Hoetbar and Adebar.
  • The only Dutch City with the stork in its coat of arms is The Hague.
  • The stork flies with a straight neck, while its bill points downwards.
  • Storks are like the ‘playboys’ of the bird family. They are not monogamous. Every year they have a different partner. The direct opposite of Swans.
  • Storks lay a maximum of 7 eggs and their young ones eat approximately 4 kilograms of food every day.
  • After more than 40 days, the young ones get flying lessons from their parents and after 10 weeks, they become independent and are left to fend for themselves.
Photo: Flickr/FaceMePLS

Do you find the story of how the stork became a symbol of childbirth in the Netherlands interesting? Does your country have similar traditions of its own? Let us know in the comments below!

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