Thousands of redheads gathered for one weekend in a Dutch city to celebrate their identity, talk about their hardships, and do a bit of speed-dating for the sake of future generations. And me? I’m still trying to find out where I fall on the ginger spectrum.
On Sunday of last week, a new world record was set for most redheads in a single photo. 1,722 redheads of all shades were photographed together in Dutch city of Breda during the tenth annual international redhead festival, also known as Redhead Days.
The redheads came dressed in blue shirts and held sunflowers to mark 125 years since the death of the most famous Dutch redhead of all time — Vincent Van Gogh — breaking the previous record by a mere 50 people, which was previously set by the participants at the festival two years ago. According to organizers over 40,000 participants from more than 80 countries came to celebrate the redhead identity, of them several thousand actual redheads, although only a small portion stayed for the final day when the group photo was taken.
I decided to attend the festival exactly one year ago after I went to the Israeli redhead festival in Kibbutz Gezer (check out pictures here, Hebrew), which was organized by Ofri Moshe, who dreamed of reaching the international conference by had to make do with the local version.
The excitement was palpable on the train from Amsterdam to Breda. On the platform stood a redheaded worker from Nederlandse Spoorwegen, the Dutch railway company, who was busy gathering all the redheads she could find and sending them to first class. Other passengers, including family members or partners of the redheads, were not allowed to enter the car when the company photographer came to snap photos of the historic moment.
Most of the passengers in the first class car were children (only some of their parents were redheads), who looked happier than ever to finally be part of the majority. That, in fact, is part of the point of the conference.
“Many people, and especially young children, feel insecure because of their different hair color, and often feel ashamed or think something is wrong with them. The conference tries to instill in them a feeling of pride,” says Bart Rouwenhorst, a resident of Breda who started the conference back in 2005. But here’s the thing: Rouwenhorst isn’t a redhead himself.
Speaking with +972, Rouwenhorst explained that his connection to redheads began as a coincidence. Rouwenhorst is a logistical expert, a mechanical engineer, and an amateur painter in his free time. Ten years ago he decided he wanted to paint 15 redhead women together, and published a wanted ad in the newspaper. He received 150 offers from across the Netherlands and decided to change directions and turn the painting into a photo. The participants had such a good time that they told their friends, and other redheads began asking Rouwenhorst to reenact the event. Eventually he turned into an international expert on redheads who has put on a huge, volunteer-run conference for members of the redhead community for the past 10 years.
Our people in Micronesia
But what can a few thousand redheads (and tens of thousands of other guests — including Breda residents, family members, friends, and curious onlookers) do together over 3.5 days? It turns out that a lot. The festival included games and competitions for redheads; stalls sold cosmetics for redheads; fashion shows put on by redhead designers featuring redhead models alone; parties and speed-dating for redheads; art shows inspired by Van Gogh; yoga for redheads; dancing lessons; a chart with 50 shades of orange, allowing every redhead to find out just what kind of ginger she or he is, and more.
Redheads came from all across the world to participate in the festivities, including England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany and the United States, as well as Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Israel and more. One woman flew in from Micronesia, Israel’s most staunch ally, through Guam, Japan, South Korea and Amsterdam, despite the fact that she wasn’t actually a redhead but more of a blonde. Regardless, she stood on the stairs of Breda City Hall and gave an impassioned speech on how she felt that she finally found her real family to thunderous applause.
Many of the festival-goers come to Redhead Days to feel pride in their identity, to bond with people who are similar to them, to feel just a little less different for a few days, and to bring their unique experiences to the wider public. Rouwenhorst admits that redheads are not an oppressed minority who suffer from discrimination. Although redheads do face occasional harassment around the world, and there are obvious ramifications for anyone who stands out in a crowd, the conference does not try to establish an underground group for oppressed redheads or an organization striving for equality.
Over the years, there have been more and more redhead festivals across the world, including in Italy (“It’s the smallest, since there aren’t many redheads in Italy,” Rouwenhorst says), Germany, Ireland, and some in the United States. The Dutch organizers help establish new groups grow across the world.
Finding my lost family
“It is important that you write that people here come from countries that are either at war with each other or are enemies. But here they can just be redheads; they get to know each other and get along just fine,” Rouwenhorst says. “American soldiers and Afghani nationals, Turks and Syrians, even the Dutch, who often think of the Germans as bad people because of the past wars, can have fun and laugh with Germans. This was not our goal but it happened, and I am happy that more Israelis are coming to meet people from other countries.”
At the end of the interview I feel that there is one remaining question that we had yet to address. Ever since I was a child, I could not decide what color my hair actually is. There were always those around me who were adamant about me being a redhead, while others said I was clearly blonde. My beard is far more red than my bright hair, making the question even more difficult to answer. So I decided to ask the expert.
“Yes, you are a redhead,” Rouwenhorst rules. “Your beard is very red, your skin color tends toward pink rather than yellow, your eyebrows are bright and you blush easily. It is clear.”
“It’s an entirely scientific matter,” he adds, “if you take a blood test, I am sure they will find you have the redhead gene. No doubt about it.”
This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.