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Grootegast’s needy receive free herring again at Easter

Benefactor set up legacy in 1476

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

GROOTEGAST, the Netherlands – It was not a food hamper by today’s standards. Nor donated by a foodbank. Still, in 1476 the needy of Grootegast, a small city in Groningen near the border with Friesland, for the first time received a free herring on the Wednesday before Easter. A certain Menno Jeltema had decreed the gesture in a perpetual contract. This year too, the free herring was handed out.

The medieval goodwill gesture toward the needy in Grootegast was made possible when Jeltema donated farmland to the Pepergasthuis, a home for the destitude in the provincial capital of Groningen. As a condition the institution in perpetuity agreed to distribute a barrel of herring in the villages of Niekerk, Oldekerk and Faan.

The guardians of the Peper guest home kept the agreement going for over 500 years. In 1979 however, it was deemed the arrangement had outlived its purpose. With the advances of the welfare state, the area no longer was home to people in dire straights. Another factor was the rising costs of the herring, once staple food but now a (costly) delicacy.

With a renewed interest in roots and traditions, the free herring also made a comeback. As an added attraction, the barrel of herring made it to the town on an authentic farmers’ wagon.