Editor’s note: I didn’t even know there was a Dutch Carnaval until I read this awesome story from Hedy, our resident Dutch writer here at The Royal Tour. Count me in to visit sometime! For more of Hedy’s writing, click here to visit her index page.
We all have heard of the Brazilian Carnaval, and it graces many peoples´ bucketlist, including mine. But I would like to take you to a different Carnaval: the Dutch Carnaval.
Carnaval has Roman Catholic origins, and as the north of the Netherlands (roughly above the rivers Waal and Maas) is predominantly Protestant, you can find Carnaval only in the South, with a few exceptions. It is a last celebration of all things yummy, fun, and nice before the 40 days of fasting before Easter start, or at least it used to be. Nowadays most people just do the celebrating, but not the fasting. The Carnaval season officially starts on November 11, the “day of the crazy.” This is Catholic symbolism – as the number 12 is a holy number, the number 11 stands for imperfection. On this day the Carnaval prince is announced and the preparations for the big celebration can start. In some cities like Maastricht and Den Bosch, the day of the crazy is also a small pre-party, so if you’re in the area on November 11 make sure to party along!
After months of preparation, sometime in mid-winter the Carnaval finally starts. It doesn’t have a set date, because it is dependant on the date of Easter, which is a moon-cycle-based date. Officially the Carnaval starts on Sunday when the mayor hands the keys of the city to the Carnaval prince and the “crazy people” take over for three days. Every village and city has its own version of celebrating, but most have a parade. Here you can see the most wonderfully dressed groups with colourful constructions they have been building since the start of the Carnaval season.
But what makes Carnaval so special? You can see parades anywhere in the world, so why go to the Netherlands in winter for a parade? All the ceremonial traditions might be the basis, but Carnaval has transcended that. Carnaval has become a celebration of letting go, celebrating life, and sharing it with everyone under the enjoyment of a beer, or two, or three… During those three days the “crazy people” take over and all social order goes out the window. Everyone is equal (as it should be, always) during Carnaval. Depending where you are celebrating, this is done by either wearing the same clothing as everyone else, or by dressing up the way you are on the inside (think glittery fabrics, colorful face paint, and wigs). So when you decide to join the party, try to find out what the local customs are. But even if you don’t match, that’s okay because its Carnaval! Just do be aware that there is also an “inside” Carnaval (mainly in the province of Brabant) and an ‘“outside” Carnaval (mostly in the province of Limburg). Make sure you dress in lots of layers for the outside version and be prepared for wind and rain. For the inside Carnaval, be prepared to get hot and sweaty, so skip the scarves and gloves there.
What else can you expect if you decide to join the festivities? Carnaval music of course! There will be a lot of dancing and singing, and for most of it, it will be done with songs made especially for Carnaval. Depending on where you celebrate, it will be sung in either Dutch or a local dialect – it is musically most comparable to German-Austrian apres-ski music. It is made very easy to bop and “la-la-la” along to, so don’t worry about not understanding the lyrics; most of us don’t. For the outside Carnaval there are also entire harmony orchestras and drum bands walking around on the streets to keep you dancing and staying warm.
But there is also a different way to stay warm, or to stay hydrated if you celebrate it inside: drinking. Beer that is, not tea or coffee. As it started out as a sort of goodbye to all things nice before the fasting starts, it has involved into a three day bacchanal. That can be a big turnoff for a lot of people, and that is very understandable. My advice is that you can always find your own way in Carnaval, drinking or not. If you want to stay sober and be amongst (mostly) sober people, go during the day and enjoy all the creativity people have put into their costumes and parade-cars, and just walk around, being surprised at what you can find around the corner. Maybe you’ll walk into a boerenbruiloft (farmers wedding), or a polonaise (a sort of line dance), or one of the other many traditions that may occur during the Carnaval. And if you do like a few beers, join the evening festivities, sing along to the music, and make new friends. Or make a combination of the two, as I often do. Walk around during the afternoon, sipping on a nice beer, enjoying the transition from daytime to nighttime Carnaval, and then party along in the night.
As I am from Limburg, I’ve celebrated Carnaval almost my entire life, both in Limburg when I was a little child – and now – and in Brabant during my student years. Carnaval marks the start of spring for me, the end of the dark short days that I chase away with mountains of glitter and a nice outfit that brings me joy. I usually spend the time between Christmas and Carnaval preparing my outfits and face paint ideas as a sort of personal Carnaval tradition. My glue gun becomes my best friend and glitters, feathers, and pieces of fabric can be found all over my living room. I check which colors of face paint I need to restock and try to find the most outrageous fake lashes or accessories to complete my look. And when that is done, I am ready to show and celebrate the inner crazy me. I like to gather some friends at my house and doll them up as well, as for me, Carnaval, no matter where you celebrate it, is a party filled with gezelligheid. This is a very hard to translate word, but it comes down to comfortably being together and having fun. Even if you go by yourself, you won’t feel alone at Carnaval; you will make new friends! But most of all, it is a celebration of surprise. I never know what is going to happen – will I see a clash of two harmony orchestras in the middle of the street, both continuing to play their own song whilst crossing? Or will I see three 5 meter high leeks (yes, the vegetable) dancing to a Carnaval version of ‘Va pensiero’ by Verdi? With carnaval you never know. That is what you get if you let “crazy people” take over, and I like it!
So if you are ever in the Netherlands in February or March and you feel like celebrating life at a completely crazy party with costumes, its own music, and lots of local traditions, join a day of Dutch carnaval!
How to eat your way through Dutch Carnaval
My favourite Carnaval snack has to be the Nonnevot (a nun’s behind, loosely translated), which is a pretzel-shaped donut covered in cinnamon and sugar. It is mostly available in the South of Limburg, and only during Carnaval season.
And as you might be drinking quite a lot of beer during Carnaval, you need a good base. The best one for me is friet met zoervleis. Zoervleis (sour meat) can be eaten all year round and is a traditional Limburg dish. It’s a stew of beef (or horsemeat, if you want to go really traditional) marinated in vinegar and spices and cooked until the meat falls apart. It is tangy, salty, and a bit sweet at the same time and eaten together with some fries for dipping and scooping.
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