For the last 28 years, on Christmas Eve, hundreds of children in the Netherlands have gathered at war cemeteries placing candles at the graves of more than 2,000 Canadian soldiers.
The tradition started after Leena van Dam, a Finnish woman, brought it to the Netherlands and shared it with the Holten Canadian War Cemetery.
In Finland, it is traditional to place a burning candle on the graves of loved ones. Finnish candles can burn for ten hours and remain lit and withstand most weather conditions. Initially, Mrs. van Dam donated a five-year supply of candles. The Welcome Again Veterans Foundation, through the help of sponsors and donations, has continued funding the candles.
Every year the Holtense primary schools place candles on Christmas Eve at the graves of all the fallen ones buried at the Canadian cemetery in Holten. Unfortunately, the ceremony won’t take place with the public due to the pandemic.
“As a board of the Foundation Celebration of National Holidays, we are sorry that we cannot organize a memorial this year,” Stichting Viering Nationale Feestdagen stated, “It would be irresponsible to be with a lot of visitors this evening. But, of course, our organization will be placing candles at every grave on Dec. 24.”
Modifications in light of COVID
While placing the candles, the area around the cemetery is temporarily closed to the public. However, starting at 5 p.m., in accordance with COVID-19 restrictions, people can visit the Canadian cemetery to honour the fallen and see the memorial lights burn.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) also hosted a Candlelit Christmas Remembrance at Stonefall Cemetery in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, on Sunday, Dec. 19.
Traditions across Europe
Mum Benji Walker of Harrogate was inspired to set up the event after seeing images of CWGC cemeteries across Europe lit by candlelight.
Walker said, “The Candlelit Christmas Remembrance is a chance for the local community to gather to remember the sacrifice of the hundreds of CWGC casualties buried at Stonefall, many of them thousands of miles from home. I am delighted, so many people attended to pay their respects today to mark the sacrifice of these brave heroes.”
Harrogate (Stonefall) Cemetery
With more than 1,000 Commonwealth war graves, Harrogate (Stonefall) Cemetery is one of the largest CWGC sites in the North of England. Most of the fallen in this cemetery are of airmen of the Second World War when bomber command bases were established across Yorkshire. More than 600 casualties served with the Royal Canadian Air Force, including two seventeen-year-olds.
There is often significant participation from school-aged children. By educating children on the importance and meaning of the sacrifice of these men, it will help keep their memory alive. Therefore, a goal was set to have candles burning at each of the 19,200 graves of allied soldiers by 2019/2020.
What may have started as a community initiative at the cemetery has grown into a nationwide yearly tradition at World War II cemeteries all over the Netherlands. Holten is a village 20 kilometres east of the town of Deventer, on the main A1 motorway from Amsterdam to Bremen in Germany.
The Netherlands fell to the Germans in May 1940. It wasn’t until Sept. 1944 that Allied forces returned to the country. The majority of the 1,347 Canadians buried in Holten Canadian War Cemetery died during the last stages of the war in Holland, during the advance of the Canadian 2nd Corps into northern Germany, and across the Ems in April and early May 1945. After the end of hostilities, the remains of over 1,300 Canadian soldiers were brought together into this cemetery.