Don’t feel bad. Carnaval is a festival I had never heard of until about ten years ago. On making some new Dutch friends, I had the pleasure of attending my first ever Carnaval in the Dutch town of Best near Eindhoven. It is primarily celebrated in the Southern regions of Brabant and Limburg, and was traditionally a Christian festival, although it is not considered religious. Traditionally it begins exactly six weeks before Easter Sunday, but in some towns the party starts on the Friday, making is a 6 day long affair. I’m not even sure how I would describe this mad festival, other than a mix between Halloween, St Patrick’s Day and a children’s birthday party. During this Festival, everyone, and I mean everyone dresses in fancy dress and fall out onto the streets listening to cheesy music and attend local parades. I am not kidding you here. I have seen new born babies in full fancy dress!
I attended 4 consecutive Carnaval’s where I dressed up as Cleopatra, an American Indian, a clown and an air hostess respectively. I will never forget my first time heading to a Carnaval Party thinking that I would look and feel ridiculous. But this was far from the case! As soon as I entered the local community hall I was accosted with bright and funny costumes, confetti and silly string. Generations of families dancing in time with the songs I later learned were just as silly as they sounded. But the spirit in the place was something I never have experienced before, and I am not sure I ever will.
What’s it All about?
For three days, all local businesses (with the exception of bars and some restaurants) close their doors and give all employees time of to enjoy the party. The town in effect closes down. The basis of Carnaval is the reversal of roles and social norms and the costumes chosen tend to reflect the opposite of the expected normal behaviour. Therefore, costumes can often be tongue-in-cheek, yet offence is never taken. The purpose of dressing up is so that people regardless of their usual role or social status, can participate equally in the festivities and not expect any criticism in doing so.
Prince of Carnaval
One of the quirky facts about Carnaval in the Netherlands is that each town has their own “Prince Carnaval”. At the beginning of Carnaval, the Mayor hands a symbolic key of Power to the Prince of Carnaval for the festival, during which he will have 3 days of power. The Prince then travels around granting personalised medals to people based on what he feels is merit. It is a tremendous honour to be Prince Carnaval and local men with remember this time for the rest of their lives.
The hallmark of Carnaval is the music and in every corner of the town you can hear the signature tunes blasting out. These songs are dangerously catchy and mainly consist of nonsensical lyrics such as “Er staat een paard in de gang” translated as “There is a horse in the hallway” or “Schjate mag ik je foto” which means “Babe, can I take your picture”. You have been warned, the songs will stay with you for a lifetime! Everybody dances and the safety of the costume means that embarrassment doesn’t come into it. Everyone regardless of status is there to have a good time and take part in “Hossen” (everyone jumping up and down in unison) or Polonaise (The Dutch version of a conga line)
As the day moves to night and the families head home the hard-core youth attend outdoor raves where heavy dance music blares and the party goes on well into the early hours.
During the Carnival Festival in most towns cash is not taken in the bars, so a token system works and tokens can be spent in any bar. Because everything costs the same; a beer or soft drink being one token and a spirit costing 2 or 3, most groups work off a kitty system and each person takes a turn to go to the bar, carrying drinks back in convenient cardboard holders.
See it for yourself!
Carnaval is a festival that is so culturally rich and so full of fun. Each year as I see my friends donning their costumes on social media, I still get that pang of jealousy and wish I could be there to celebrate the weirdest, but most incredible festival Europe has to offer. I would recommend any person who takes life too seriously to go to Carnaval – Trust me on this one, you won’t regret it!