Once a year the south of the Netherlands goes absolutely bananas. For three days (which extends to sometimes a full week), people will dress up, the streets will fill with parades, and everyone will be partying. What’s the occasion? Vastenavond, or in English ‘Eve of Lent’. The celebration starts on a Sunday and continues through till Ash Wednesday. But in all honesty, Dutch Carnival is one massive excuse to get together, party with friends, and drink large amounts of beer. Many cities participate and all have their very own Carnival name!
So, how’s this become a thing?
Originally, if we go way back to the late 14th century, Dutch carnival was primarily an adaptation of a pagan celebration (Garstka, 2014). It disappeared two centuries later and then revived again in the early 1800s when the Netherlands was under French rule. Even though the tradition nowadays has many similarities to the feasts back then, there’s a couple of explicit things you can look out for these upcoming few days:
On November 11th (11/11) each year, the city’s council of 11 meets to vote for a Prince of Carnival (Garstka, 2014). The Prince is there to see to the proceedings and to kick off the celebrations. The ceremonious transfer of power that occurs on the first day of Carnival from the city’s mayor to the Prince symbolises the suspension of daily life and initiates the party. Carnival in the end, is reason to drop all the daily responsibilities, and party instead.
No matter where you celebrate Carnival this year, you need to dress up! Usually it’s only recommended, but in some places it’s definitely required if you want to participate in the festivities. According to Garstka (2014), dressing up has to do with social role inversions. In the past this meant that people of the lower class had the opportunity to break free from strict laws. The costume was there to deflect any judgement from the Church and therefore avoid personal consequences. In the present now, it serves a very similar function! So get yourself a last minute costume, and dress up like anyone or anything you’d like.
Imagine the biggest floats, dancers, confetti, and much more. Every city that participates in Carnival organises a parade. The date on which this is held varies per city, but you’ll be amazed by all the creations and acting that will walk past you. All of these are usually made by local organisations and many volunteers who’ll embrace the community and bond by parodying and making fun of city officials. If you keep your eye out, you’ll also see a boat-like float on which the Prince of Carnival will ride!
Where do you celebrate?
As mentioned, this is only a southern Dutch tradition so if you’re not studying in any of the participating cities, you’ll have to travel to the provinces North Brabant or Limburg in case you’d like to join! Prepare yourself and you too can get in on the action. Don’t be afraid to ask your local Dutch friends from the south if you can join them or simply gather a group together, dress up, and head out together! Enjoy ;)
Retrieved from Garstka, B. (2014) “Carnival in the Netherlands: Customs and Traditions explained” https://www.iamexpat.nl/lifestyle/lifestyle-news/carnival-netherlands-customs-and-traditions-explained