Priya Ganji/Daily

It’s a nice day in early May, with the kind of warmth that squeezes your hand while wind whispers sweet nothings in your ear. Off the east coast of a glittering freshwater lake is a small grouping of buildings established by Dutch immigrants that some would call a town. Just months before the start of the Great Depression, a young couple decides to visit a garden of flowers they keep hearing so much about. Hand in hand, they stroll through rows of dewy, doe-eyed bulbs of eggplant purple, blush pink, butter yellow and cherry red. The swirling hug of these petals is the perfect shape for holding cupped in both hands. Naturally, the male member of this pair decides to pick a few of the many tulips sweeping through the grass. He picks six and presents them in a bouquet to his girl like a puppy that found the perfect stick. 

This couple is my Great-Great-Grandma Newhoff and her soon-to-be husband. They attended the first-ever Tulip Time festival in May of 1929. 

Today, Great-Great-Grandpa Newhoff would be charged with a misdemeanor for destruction of property and potentially fined $600 if he was caught making a tulip bouquet, no matter how romantic the gesture is. Welkom to Holland, Michigan, home of the largest flower festival in the country. 

The internationally renowned Tulip Time festival is a nearly century-old tradition of Holland. Or, as the town is better known, the birthplace of Michigan Daily writer Dani Canan (just kidding that would be ridiculous). 

Growing up, everyone thinks their surrounding environment is “normal.” When you’re a young kid, certain things that take place around you are simply facts of life, and there aren’t always clues around to challenge this perspective. The sky is blue here, so it must be blue for everyone. I live by a lake, so everyone must live by a lake. My parents are in a band, so all my friends’ parents must also be in bands. Right?

One of my favorite parts of meeting people at college is comparing notes on how we lived B.C.E. (before college era). Some schools have every Advanced Placement class, and others only have three. I went to public school, my one friend went to private school, my other friend went to Catholic school and my other friend went to school in the middle of Nowhere, U.S.A. I’m close with my sister, but I know some people with brothers or sisters that don’t have that same sibling relationship. Knowing that people are unfathomably and wonderfully complex and different is one thing, but I find being in conversation and feeling that difference is the best reinforcer of my empathy. Not everyone is like me, and that’s a lovely thing. 

All that being said, I didn’t realize it was weird that the town I grew up in has a tulip festival so renowned that Christina Aguilera performed at it in 2000 (I was born in 2001, so unfortunately, I missed this performance). 

The first interaction I had that made me seriously rethink celebrations for tulips was a conversation with my sophomore year roommate. We were trading tidbits about our hometowns. She’s from Indiana. Cool, cool, I’ve never been to Indiana. I’m from Holland in Michigan, the exact other side of the state from Ann Arbor. It’s near Grand Rapids. She was in a competitive show choir. That’s sick, my school didn’t have that. I got fitted for a Dutch costume when I was young with wooden shoes and a bonnet to go take pictures in front of the tulips with my cousin. You need to wear like five pairs of socks to get wooden shoes to fit. The look on her face as I went into more detail was quite entertaining. Hang on, you got school off for that? Yep. And it used to feel as natural to me as spring break. 

Photo courtesy of Dani Canan.

The festival has changed a lot since great-great-grams and gramps broke sacred tulip law all those decades ago. When I think of the Tulip Times I attended growing up, I think of three days of parades, with some marching bands coming from other states. I think of my sister playing quads in the school drumline in full uniform, feathered cap and all. I think of my aunt teaching baton twirling routines for the majorettes, and stories of my uncle Dutch dancing in full costume. I think of elephant ears, funnel cakes and candy apples at vendors lining a whole street, right next to a pop-up carnival. This is what my town turns into for one whole week every May. Parking is impossible, streets are closed, wooden shoes clog in a synchronous chorus of clatter. There are floats, drum cadences, horns and woodwinds in perfect step, baton tossing and flag choreography. 

Fanfare and organized spectacle are great, but these aren’t even the main attraction. Sure, Christina Aguilera helps, but the core of the festival has always been the tulips. The first festival was the brainchild of a biology teacher in the area. She spearheaded the effort to beautify the town with tulips, and she and her students helped plant 100,000 tulip bulbs ordered from the Netherlands. There are now five million tulips that bloom in places like Dutch Village, Windmill Island and the regular downtown streets. The city replants one-third of the bulbs every year. 

There are acres of tulips, a living petal color wheel that stretches on and on, all the way to the base of the only working windmill in America of authentic Netherlands craftsmanship. It’s the tulips that draw thousands of people to this small western Michigan town from all over the world. Yes, from all over the world. 

Over the course of my life, my opinion of Tulip Time has gone through various phases. Of course, when you’re younger, and something is colorful and attention-grabbing, it’s likely to be fun. I have very fond memories of getting a caramel apple for the first time, going to the carnival with friends and feeling the sound waves of marching bands in my chest. In middle school, it became more of an annoyance than anything else. We had to leave the house so early and walk so far in the heat. I just wanted the parades to be over as soon as possible so we could leave. In high school, I didn’t really care that much about Tulip Time anymore. I wasn’t marching because I wasn’t in band. I had seen the parades so many times before, and they would be right there waiting for me if I wanted to go in the future. The really frustrating part is that any normal activity I could do downtown any other time of year was congested by so, so many tourists. Tulip Time for me went from a beacon of excitement to a family obligation to a predictable obstacle in my life.

But I recently revisited some of my long-held conceptions and memories of the festival, the most publicized fact of my life. My memories of Tulip Time from before elementary school were fuzzier than ever. I remembered my grandma talking on the news about the parade. I remembered one year performing a princess wave from a moving float to the lines of spectators on the sidewalk. I knew exactly who I had to talk to in order to get some clarity on some of my earlier childhood memories. 

I sat down to have a conversation with my grandmother, Tamra Bouman, who I knew had some sort of important connection to the festival but couldn’t put my finger on what, exactly. The exact nature of her position was one of the first questions I asked her. She told me that from 2002 to 2010, she was the executive director of the entire event. 

My grandma moved to Holland from Grand Rapids with my dad when she was 22 (that’s two years older than I am right now). I didn’t necessarily have a “first impression” of Tulip Time since I grew up alongside it, but I wondered what my grandma’s first encounter was like as more of an initial outsider. My grandma knew of Tulip Time before living there, but she had never actually attended before. When she went for the first time in 1982, she recounts thinking, “It’s big (and) it’s busy.” It was her first time seeing Dutch dancing, too. In reflecting on her year participating, she had this to say: “You have to take the good with the bad … there’s a lot of good for celebrating Tulip Time and the events that are offered, but when you bring that many people into a small town, it creates chaos in some ways.” At that, we both chuckled. 

My Grandma Bouman had just finished a college degree in business and marketing when she got a call from the Tulip Time board. “Financially, (the festival) was in disarray.” The festival had been losing traction in the years prior. “I realized that I was being asked to step into a position of a long-standing community icon, and when I heard that things weren’t in good shape, and I was being asked to come and help where I could, I really couldn’t say no to that.”

The next question I asked was whether she saw Holland as a tourist town, and she very quickly responded with a “most definitely.” “In the mid-2000s, tourism was second only to agriculture in the state of Michigan from an economic standpoint, and Tulip Time certainly led the way.”

I wanted to know what some of her goals were when she began working at the festival. She reflected on how goals are different in a situation where a nonprofit organization needed to at least break even versus one that was in a healthy place money-wise. “We had to start at the most local level. Because if we couldn’t sell this festival to the community, we certainly weren’t going to be able to sell it to the state, to the country and, quite frankly, internationally.”

After that last remark, I had to clarify if there was actually an international scope for planning this thing because even now it’s hard for me to believe. To me, Holland is just the place I went to kindergarten. Grandma’s response was a simple but confident “Oh yes, and there still is.” It took her saying it twice for the renown to really sink in. She recalled a day in which she was able to have a conversation with people from nine different countries. 

One major contributing factor of the festival losing money was the increased presence of casinos, believe it or not. Apparently, casinos created competition for not just Tulip Time, but for festivals all over the country. Half of the attendance for Tulip Time was from bus tours, so as casinos grew in interest and appeal, the bus groups started driving toward the fickle promise of fortune instead. One of Holland’s responses was to introduce alcohol to the festival for the first time. If the casinos were serving beer fountains, then the Holland tulip festival could, too. 

The only festivals that my Grandma could think of that came close in the attendance category were the Traverse City Cherry festival and Grand Haven’s Coast Guard Festival. But for flowers, she said, there isn’t a celebration that comes close. “This festival is the largest tulip festival in the country.” As director, my Grandma had a study done to estimate the economic impact, and it was found to be between 11-15 million dollars. “It took 5,000-7,000 volunteers from top to bottom to do one year.” This is approximately one-fifth of the population of Holland at the time. Bus drivers, costume makers, street sweepers, bulb planters and so many more. 

When I asked about the history of the tulip flower, my Grandma went into some details that caught me off guard. A long time ago, tulips were publicly traded in the Netherlands. Their value skyrocketed for one year between 1636 and 1637. The latter year is when the market crashed. There were people who lost so much money by investing in tulips that they chose to jump to their deaths. “There is a dark piece of history with the beautiful vibrancy of the rest of the history as we know it.”

Another of my many tulip-related memories is one of a “tulipless” 2012, when there were shirts in stores with graphics that had green stems but no blooms to represent the tulips of that year. My Grandma Bouman was the director during the year that became known as Stemfest. Michigan weather is unpredictable on a good day, but this fateful year, every single one of the tulips bloomed a month early. The air got too warm too soon, and then returned to frost in the middle of spring, removing the bulbs from the tulips. I remember it wasn’t just Tulip Time, but all my favorite places to pick blueberries and apples at farms in Michigan were losing crops during this particular year. Instead of trying to hide the blatant lack of tulips from festival-goers, the branding leaned into the absence. Although, my Grandma did say she “would much rather live through a stemfest than (she) would a rainfest.” The rain was so bad another year that there were porta-potties hitting cars as they floated down the street. 

To wrap up the conversation, I asked my grandma if there was a favorite thing she did during her time as executive director. She mulled it over for a few long seconds, letting the tulip-scented sweetness of the past wash over her. Finally, she cited her first year in 2002, when it was “at a pretty critical stage.” The festival didn’t just break even, but it made $20,000. “It could have been 20 million dollars because we had finally taken it out of the hole and paid our bills.”

Ava Gardner, the wife of Frank Sinatra, came to the tulip festival right after World War II. Johnny Cash came in the ’70s. While my Grandma was director, the then-Ms. America came and so did an ambassador from the Netherlands. 

Yeah, Tulip Time is a lot of effort to go to for some tulips. It’s pretty out of the ordinary, and Dutch dancing looks a bit dorky, but Ann Arbor has a puppet parade for April Fools’ Day. Every city has its version of Tulip Time. The level of publicity may differ, but there’s something that warms my heart at what appears to be the human tendency to find any excuse to celebrate together. Cherry festivals, Coast Guard festivals, tulip festivals — none of these celebrations are necessary for human life. If bees were to disappear, humanity would lose their sources of food. If festivals disappeared, some people would be sad for a season, some might shrug and others would be completely unaffected. So a question surfaces: Why take the time to organize a festival at all? Why fight to keep a festival alive when the tide of interest is flowing back out to sea?

Answer: It makes people smile. It brings members of a community, state, country and world into one place for a reason that can’t possibly be negative. That’s what fills me with warm fuzzies. Tulip time doesn’t have to even occur, not really. But it persists. 

If a town has the ability and resources to make people smile, then why would they not?

Statement Columnist Dani Canan can be reached at