Everyone has heard of the legendary Rio Carnival, where silicone-enhanced Brazilian beauties dance the samba clad in a blinding array of sequins. You have probably also heard of Mardi Gras in New Orleans (with festivities of the Bourbon Street drinkin’, boob flashin’, bead throwin’ variety), and maybe even Carnevale in Venice, famous for its masquerades. Chances are, however, that you have never experienced the particularly Dutch spin on this popular celebration.
The Dutch incarnation of carnival (or “Vastenavond”) is traditionally only celebrated in the Catholic regions of the country, and especially in the southern provinces of Noord-Brabant and Limburg. Protestant influences in the rest of the country mean that major cities like Amsterdam and The Hague do not celebrate carnival. Living in Tilburg (and having a significant other who hails from another carnival-crazed city of the Netherlands), I had the good fortune to be located in the heart of carnival country. Here are a few of the many reasons why I think everyone should experience carnival in the Netherlands:
- It is a non-stop party. Dutch carnival officially runs from the Sunday through Tuesday that immediately precedes the first day of Lent (Ash Wednesday). The Dutch never turn down an excuse for more beer and tent parties though, so many places begin the celebrations as early as Thursday or Friday. On Sunday, the town mayor hands over the keys to the city to the previously-crowned Prince of Carnival. For three days, the prince technically “rules” over his “Kingdom of Fools” and can even issue proclamations valid during the carnival season.
- Towns change their names. During the three days of carnival, the town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch (which, incidentally, is also the town where the first recorded mention of Dutch carnival celebrations took place in 1385) changes its name to “Oeteldonk”, meaning “Frog Hill.” The town of Breda becomes “Kielegat”, and Eindhoven becomes “Lampegat.” This particular tradition may be completely unnecessary, but how can you NOT get in the silly spirit of carnival when you are running around a place referred to as “Oeteldonk?”
- Crazy costumes. Carnival in the Netherlands is essentially one major costume party. This is the Dutch equivalent to Halloween, and everyone participates.
For Dutch people though, carnival costumes are NOT all about sex appeal. This may come as a surprise to Americans, since Halloween in the U.S. is often considered the one day of the year when a girl can wear whatever sexy attire she wants without being labeled “slutty.” Sorry guys, no Playboy bunny costumes to be seen here. Instead, the goal is to dress as wacky as possible, preferably with obnoxious neon colors and crazy wigs. If you like to dress in character, Dutch carnival is definitely for you.
- Carnival is for everyone. One of the nicest aspects of carnival in the Netherlands is that everyone participates. In other places around the world, carnival is definitely a celebration for young, drunk revelers. Not in the Netherlands. There is, of course, a fair share of those young partiers, but young people by no means hold a monopoly on carnival fun. It is not unusual to see an 8 year-old in a bar, or a 60 year-old couple dressed as pirates drinking beers in a tent next to a group of teens in bunny suits.
- Parades. The centerpiece of carnival is each town’s carnival parade (optocht). Groups spend thousands of hours over the course of several months creating elaborate parade floats that are then driven through the city, led by the Prince of Carnival. A prize is awarded to the best float of the day. These floats are definitely a sight to behold. My boyfriend happens to belong to one of the float-building associations in his hometown of Neede, so I was lucky enough to see this carnival tradition from behind the scenes (and walk along with the Hansel and Gretel themed float on the parade route!).
- Carnival music. In addition to crazy costumes, carnival in the Netherlands is also known for its ridiculous carnival songs–think lots of accordion sounds accompanied by terribly bad (yet easy to sing-a-long) lyrics. How bad, you say? Well, at one party I attended the DJ played a carnival cover version of “Sex on Fire” by Kings of Leon, only during the chorus line “your sex is on fiiiiiiiiiire,” the Dutch lyrics were changed to something along the lines of “have sex with a baaaaaald man”. Other even worse songs included titles like, “I have a horn on my jetski” (Ik heb een toet-toet-toeter op mijn waterscooter) and “Fat girls have pretty names” (Dikke meisjes hebben mooie namen). Deep stuff. For the three days of carnival, though, no one cares about the lyrics. The music, like everything else, is just there to brighten the silly mood. And that it does. If you’re interested in hearing some of this musical gold, below is one of the most popular carnival songs from this year’s festivities:
- Get off the beaten path. Most visitors to the Netherlands only see the major cities- some never make it outside Amsterdam. Carnival presents the perfect opportunity to visit some of the less-popular tourist regions of the Netherlands while they are at their best. And since each town celebrates carnival in its own unique way, with its own prince, its own parade, and its own flag, you really can’t go wrong.
It may not be the be-all and end-all of your bucket list, but if you’re in the Netherlands in February and are looking for one heck of a party, then you can’t miss Dutch carnival.