A well-known fact is that all Dutchies, otherwise practical and calm people, completely loose it on King’s Day, the most widespread, very Dutch holiday. But the southernmost provinces of the Netherlands, Limburg and Brabant (and even parts of Drente), are blessed with yet another such event – Vastelaovend also known as the carnival in the Netherlands.

Everyone’s day

The feast is an old pagan tradition, which like many others, was later turned into a Christian celebration, to mark the beginning of the fasting period prior to Easter (therefore, the date of the carnival depends on the date of Easter). But in essence, the carnival in the Netherlands kept a lot of its pagan roots, making it very similar to the Roman Saturnalia – role swapping during which normal social status and attitude are suspended.

I have experienced this unique event with the Limburgians and I can tell you for a fact that they take this opportunity to a completely new level – a publicly agreed bacchanalia nobody has a problem with, instead, everyone insists on participating in. Alaaaaaaaaaaaaaaf!

carnaval in the Netherlands

For three long days, cities, villages, administration, law and order… simply do not exist. In a country where the term “weekend” is as literal as possible, suspending life for few days is not so unexpected. What is, however, truly surprising, are its scale and the complete agreement between people that there will be nothing else but music, beer, princes and princesses for 24 hours a day. Nobody even considers objecting – the right to a carnival for any individual is the core philosophy of the feast. Like Christmas.

Costumes and princes

In the three days of province-wide celebrations, Limburg is overtaken by the colours of the carnival – red, yellow and green. A flag hangs everywhere, enjoying much more popularity than the national one. The typical decoration (of a house, garden, car) includes garlands, lighthouses, statues of animals in the honored colours, hanging, illuminating, cascading.  The red, yellow and green are to be found on completely unexpected places – flower bouquets, lingerie, shoes, tablecloths, pillows.

One house in any given place during the feast bears an abnormally big sign (plus picture) to inform you that here lives the newly proclaimed Prince of the Carnival, His Highness {any name} Third, Ninth, Tenth. The houses following the temporary castle proudly display the same information– why not, how often you have a prince living on your street?

A key moment of carnivalling is your personal camouflage, which can be a real challenge to one’s creativity for three days in a row. But fear not – no matter where you are in Limburg, you will have at least 3 carnival shops of supermarket size in immediate proximity. The goods are exceptionally variable – from supporting accessories to completely realistic costumes of all shapes and sizes. The authenticity of most of the costumes drove the local authorities to ban the police officer disguise – a number of mistakes occurred in previous years. Since recently, the so popular cowboy costume is also forbidden, as it is considered an insult to the Native Americans… No comment on that!

Probably the most exciting moment of the feast, at least of its first evening (in case you have the character for all three of them), is the moment when you set up your dressing and stroll the streets to enjoy the colorful world of human creativity. The celebratory events typically last for a whole day, almost entirely happening on the main square of any larger town in Limburg. From the moment you hop on the public transport, it is once again clear that the right to carnival is holy –  if, sadly, someone has to work during these days, this will not stop them from participating. It is, therefore,  very possible, for example, to have a Mozart as your bus driver. He will be as serious at work as he is on any other, normal day when he is not impersonating an Austrian wunderkind. Same goes for your fellow travelers coming and going on the stops – a Sherlock Holmes, a Maria Antoinette, tree pigs, two horses, a circus juggler…

On the square

The main square is a boiling hotchpotch of music and people. Many of them spend the whole day outside – taking few rests at home, they come for more, sometimes also in new costumes. The place is loudly dubbed by the traditional carnival music, which, to anyone not knowing Dutch or the local dialect sounds all the same – as a drunken pub song or as a long-drawn French chanson. Everyone is singing and dancing along with the band on stage, and, from time to time, practice a very popular, yet very controversial ritual – throwing around half full plastic beer cups over other people. It’s considered refreshing…

Around and about there are flight attendants, seamen, pharaohs, football players of all ages. Another very typical side of this feast (and of many other Dutch celebrations) is that it only matters how old one feels – people of elderly age dress up as enthusiastically as the younger ones. Change of roles is also widely observed in their behavior .

The official beginning of the carnival eve is on a Saturday in a very solemn manner. The music stops, all lights focus on a terrace of a nearby building where the Council of Eleven stands. The Council consists of the carnival prince of the year (for the given city as every place has their own prince and council), and the main organizers. The number 11 is not there by accident – in Christianity, it symbolizes madness, one less than the number of perfection, 12. After speeches and loud greetings, the key of the town is handed by the mayor to the prince, and fireworks and confetti pop all over.

Raising awareness

The evening events on the square are only part of the whole carnival fuzz. A number of processions are organized also in daylight by the local carnival societies, who parade the streets accompanied by brass bands or along huge platforms with movie and book characters. Some groups seize the moment to raise awareness – in order to address the endangered live of swans locally, one such group dressed and marched in full ballerina outfits (men including) sounded by Tchaykovski’s Swan’s lake.

Other memorable carnival events include the so-called men and women evenings, usually held prior to the opening night of the celebrations. Associations with bachelor/bachelorette parties are inevitable, but here everyone is a bride or a groom-to-be, and they are of all ages and walks of life. Groups gather in local bars or community centers, of course with costumes (some choose to dress up the same), music and beer are everywhere, comedians, artists, and even strippers hold performances. Everything is allowed during carnival, it is very normal to visit a night of the kind with your mother/father/boss, for as long as you keep in mind to expect the unexpected. Whatever happens there, stays there.

Carnival in the Netherlands: A spirit like no other

The spirit of the carnival is deeply enrooted in the hearts of the local people – Limburgians not living in the province anymore come back for the celebration, just as other people do so for Christmas or Easter. Youngsters and elderly will enthusiastically prepare their costumes, trying to be as creative as possible, will actively participate in processions, support and help the local organizing committee and will tell you many, many stories for the carnival in 19..something year, what their outfits as children were, and how it is widely acceptable to go at work, school, university in a costume.

If you decide to be part of these days of endless celebration as a local, it will take you little to see that temporary madness is, in fact, contagious and very liberating for the body and the spirit. For a whole of three days, you may be in as many roles as you wish, and break small public regulations with the naughty face of a 5 years old. Everyone – from your friends to the local grannies – will be very happy and encouraging.

  • Bram Dekker

    Good and nicely written article. Just one thing to note: people also celebrate Carnaval in the eastern part of Overijssel (for example in Oldenzaal).

    • ‘Paola Valeria Ivanova

      Thank you 🙂 I am yet to discover how they do it other parts of the country 🙂