Friday, 5 February 2016

It's Carnival time!

In many European countries (and several others around the world) people are celebrating Carnival this weekend.

In the Southern Provinces of Holland, Carnaval is (and we are understating it here) quite a big deal, with people actually taking off on Carnival Monday and Tuesday to celebrate it properly.

With celebrations covering the week before Ashes Wednesday, Carnival is strictly connected to the Christian calendar, although, as with many other celebrations, it is also most likely rooted in pre-Christian festivities. Ashes Wednesday takes place 46 days before Easter: since Easter’s date is, unlike Christmas, changeable and depending on the March equinox, it means that the Carnival’s date varies from year to year too, although it normally takes place either in February or March.

Coming back to The Netherlands, here are the things you need to know if you are planning to celebrate it "Dutch" style.

First of all, you will have to go "South of the Big Rivers", because they are predominantly Catholic. Northern provinces, mostly Calvinistic and hardworking (or just boring, according to colleagues coming from the South who wish to remain anonymous ;), have not caught the Carnival bug just yet.

Be aware however, that you might have issues getting to the Carnival cities, since they change name during this season. Den Bosch turns into Oeteldonk, Nijmegen is Knotsenburg and Maastrich becomes Meestrech.

Every city elects a Parliament of the Eleven and the King is announced around or on the 11/11 of the previous year.  The King and his Eleven helpers wear elaborate and richly decorated costumes, reminiscent of medieval lords’ attire

The highlight of the celebrations is of course the Optocht or Parade, featuring floats with giant papier-mache statues, often animated, dancers and groups in costumes based on a specific theme. As is typical during Carnival the world over, local and national authorities are mocked and ridiculed.

Marching brass bands playing carnival tunes (check on the web for a selection of typical carnival songs) are joining the parades and will then roam the streets of the cities when the optoch is over.

As a Dutch colleague put it to me "I think this + a lot of booze sums it up".

Beer of course feature quite prominently among the intoxicating drink of choice during these events (according to 2012’s statistics, and average Limburger drank 36 glasses of beers in 2.6 days), and it’s not uncommon to come across "beer barrel speakers": ironic speeches given in the local dialect from the top of a beer barrel. Like speakers at the Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, just drunk(er).

All in all, Carnival in The Netherlands is an event to be experienced at least once while you are in the country, just make sure you take Monday and Tuesday off … they are not among  Europol’s holidays (yet).

Want to know more? Here are some links:

Copyrighted image from Google images


  1. Quite an interesting article! Thanks a lot for sharing it here. Annual carnival is organized since so many years in Chicago and have been attending it since our childhood. My kids too love such events. Another carnival will be organized next month at a local event venue and we all are very excited to attend it.

  2. Hi Drew, I used to be a great Carnival fan as a kid as well ! :)
    Cologne in Germany and Viareggio and Muggia in Italy has some large Carnival celebrations too.
    I didn't know about Chicago's Carnival: I will look it up! :)