PrevIndexNext
NL Almanac

Carnival in the Netherlands

‘Carnaval’: the unique, Dutch version of Mardi Gras

...TV and radio devote hours to popular Carnival songs whose lyrics are at best earthy, at worst obscene

Every Spring, just before Ash Wednesday (seven weeks before Easter), a large part of Holland goes mad. ‘Carnaval’ has come again.

The rituals

Tradition has it that normal, everyday law gives way to the whims of a ‘humorous’ Carnival Committee, whose sole aim is to stop anyone from being serious during Carnival time. Local dignitaries are bizarrely caricatured in papier-mache figures and songs are sung poking fun, for example, at the local mayor.

Many Dutch towns hold parades consisting of strange, grotesque, papier-mache figures on floats and people dressed up in outrageous outfits. Brass bands blast out oompah music as the normally staid citizens suddenly dance the conga together through the streets. Many, many litres of beer disappear down thirsty throats and TV and radio devote hours to popular Carnival songs whose lyrics are at best earthy, at worst obscene.

However, it is not true that all of the Netherlands descends into anarchy at Carnival. The main Carnival provinces are Limburg and the southern portion of North-Brabant, both near the Belgian border, with Maastricht usually regarded as top Carnival town. Though less numerous, Carnival towns in the north are no less enthusiastic and their numbers seem to grow each year. Even in towns which do not hold parades Carnival celebrations take place indoors in pubs and other venues.

Origins

Despite its current popularity, the origins of the modern Dutch festivities date from not long after the second World War. The origins of the global feast go back a lot further. It is said that Spring fertility celebrations with orgiastic elements have existed since prehistory. The Egyptians had days in the year when madness reigned over sanity and Romans partied to excess during Bacchanalia. Christians in mediaeval Holland adopted Carnaval as the last chance to eat, drink and be merry prior to the forty days fasting before Easter, when no meat was meant to pass the lips. They also gave it its modern name Carnival, connected with ‘carne’, or meat, unsurprisingly enough.

During the Reformation in the seventeenth century, the provinces to the north of the great Maas and Rhine rivers became mainly Protestant while those to the south remained Roman Catholic. In the north, the sober Protestants soon did away with Carnival, which they saw as a ‘Roman Superstition’. Perversely, the wild, Catholic, mediaeval celebrations in the South also faded, perhaps due to influence from the North.

The modern Dutch Carnival dates mainly from after the second World War, when the southern provinces resurrected the tradition, organising the Carnival Committees who elected their own Prince Carnaval, the Head Jester. In the sixties, religious barriers began to crumble and the southern celebration of Carnival spread steadily to other provinces. Nowadays, the event is nationally recognised if not celebrated absolutely everywhere.

In Holland, the Carnival is far from over.