Dutch Carnaval!

Written by Marije

It is almost that time of the year again: the time to dress up as anything and go out on the street to celebrate! It is almost Carnaval! This weekend the streets will turn multi-colored and you won’t recognize anyone you might have known. That is… if you are in the south of the Netherlands. This celebration is different everywhere around the world so let me tell you something about Carnaval in the Netherlands! 

First of all a disclaimer: if you are above the big rivers in the Netherlands, you won’t find a lot of Carnaval celebrations. Utrecht does not celebrate, Amsterdam doesn’t, The Hague doesn’t. If you want to experience this special festivity you need to go to the southern provinces. This means the cities of Den Bosch, Eindhoven, Tilburg, Breda, Maastricht. According to the ones from these areas, real Carnaval is only south of the rivers. This has to do with the fact that the south of the Netherlands is Catholic while the rest is Protestant (that’s another story though). But if you want to know how we celebrate Carnaval, where you have to be, and what you can expect, continue reading!

In general, with Carnaval in the Netherlands you dress up, go out on the street, listen to Carnaval music that is played by bands in the squares or the bars, watch the parade, hope to see prince Carnaval (who rules the city for this weekend) and have a beer for three days in a row. It is a celebration where you will find the Dutch gezelligheid. What is actually being celebrated is the last day before the fasting starts, but that fasting has disappeared a little. The Carnaval traditions however have not!

However, every city in Brabant and Limburg have their own traditions and uses. If you want to fit in and not be completely taken by surprise at everything that is happening it is useful to have a little background information. Let’s start as far south as we can go: Maastricht. 

Maastricht celebrates Carnaval in a BIG way. Yet the party here really starts on Sunday and not on Friday or Saturday, and it lasts three whole days. On the Carnavalsunday you start with a good hearty breakfast because you are going to need it. There will be Carnaval music in the different bars, on the streets and by the bands. This music is a bit special, all in Dutch and the only way to dance to it is by drinking a little and doing a polonaise or moving your hands a bit.

In Maastricht it is important that you wear a costume. Everyone will be wearing one and you won’t get into any bars if you are not dressed up. You don’t have to be a specific character or anything, colors and feathers and weirdness is good. And facepaint is good too! When you are not dressed up good enough people will tell you that you are “Nyet te kenne” (Not recognizable as yourself at all) which is very sarcastic. 

In the city center the harmonies (what they call the bands on the street there) are playing on the street. On Sunday there is a parade of carts and wagons that people have been building. Confetti will be flying around and you will have great conversations with strangers that have now become your best friends. You will get compliments about your outfit and give them out, sing songs together. People are standing on the decorated streets and squares, but you can also go inside the bars. 
And then on the last day of Carnaval in Maastricht at 12 O’clock, they will take down the “Mooswief” on het Vrijthof (the biggest square). The Mooswief is the lady who guards Carnaval. All of Maastricht will be there, everyone will sing songs, people cry and there are fireworks. This is when you say goodbye to Carnaval in Maastricht.

Eindhoven. During Carnaval Eindhoven is called ‘Lampegat’. Here too it is tradition to dress up, but here it is more often that you depict something, but don’t be something too standard. Carnaval in Eindhoven is really nice because there is a long street where more than 50 cafes and clubs are situated on only 250 meters! 
On Saturday there is a parade with all the carts and wagons people have decorated and afterwards people go into the bars to sing along to the Carnaval songs. 
I asked Janna to tell me something about why Carnaval in Eindhoven is so amazing. She says that “every day of Carnaval there is something to do. I always go on Sundays with all my friends from home who come back for Carnaval. We join the pubcrawl and dress up together. Last year we all went as Orange is the New Black”. 
So go to Eindhoven all dressed up as your favorite movie character, a magician or whatever, join the pubcrawl on Sunday and just pretend you actually know the words to the songs. 

Den Bosch. During the days of Carnaval, Den Bosch is called ‘Oeteldonk’. Here Carnaval starts on Friday already and the Parade is on Saturday. Everyone is out on the streets and in the bars. People are dressed up as some character or just something else they would like to be, but the true diehard Carnaval celebrators of Den Bosch wear a Colbert jacket with a sign sowed on for every year they celebrated Carnaval in it and they wear white, yellow and red striped scarves, legwarmers or anything else. These colors are very important for this city, and if you want to fit in you need to wear them. Also it is a tradition to wear a ‘boerenkiel’ which is a red handkerchief that you tie around your neck.
Den Bosch has several characters that come back every year. For example, they celebrate the prince Amadeiro XII visiting the city. He also plays a big role in the parade on Saturday that is a big deal in Den Bosch. 

Bergen op Zoom. The final city I will talk about in this article is Bergen op Zoom. This is a smaller city close to Antwerp that celebrates Carnaval in a big way! They have some interesting traditions, but it is often not a city where many outsiders come to celebrate Carnaval. During Carnaval the city transformes into ‘het Krabbegat’ (the Crab’s Hole) with images, signs, statues and art of crabs covering the entire city. During Carnaval in Bergen op Zoom the city is owned by the people and the peasants. The prince is the one who roles the town and is helped by the Nar. Both of them are very colorfully clothed. Other important people of Carnaval in Bergen op Zoom are the Biggest Farmer who represents all the ‘crabs’ (people from Bergen op Zoom) and the Steketee, a police officer who makes sure that the atmosphere stays nice. 

The most important decoration is the 62m high church tower that is being decorated as a person with a face, arms and a Boerenkiel (that handkerchief). Wearing the Handkerchief is a tradition in Bergen op Zoom during Carnaval, as well as wearing a very decorated hat and white, lace curtains.
Here too there is a parade on Saturday with carts, wagons and a lot of Carnaval music, but no polonaise. Most of the festivities are on the main square and in the bars all through the city. In the bars there are Carnaval bands playing and here too you just pretend to know the songs and sing along. It is a lot of LaLaLaLa anyway. 

There are more cities such as Roermond (where a lot of the Carnaval music is coming from and that has an open air concert on Friday), Breda and Tilburg that celebrate Carnaval, but I couldn’t find anyone from these cities to tell me about them. The general message however is that it doesn’t matter where you celebrate the Dutch Carnaval, it will be with a lot of Carnaval music that is impossible to dance to, a lot of dressing up, parties on the street, parades and colors. So get your best outfit out of your closet and take a train south this weekend!

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