This article appeared in the Dutch Courier of February, 2015. The Dutch Courier is a monthly newspaper for the Dutch community in Australia and New Zealand.
Carnaval has come and gone. It’s a happening famous across the world, but no one associates it with the Netherlands.
Carnaval is connected to Rio de Janeiro and Brazil. One pictures beautiful, all but naked, suntanned women with feathers on their bum and caiparinha. Summer, beach and holidays. I doubt there is anyone that will think of cold winter nights – wearing a think wintercoat over your fancy dress – in a tiny country below sea level on Europe’s west coast.
Carnaval is originally part of the Catholic tradition. And the south of the Netherlands is Catholic; the provinces of Limburg and Noord-Brabant specifically (just like Brazil, I might add).
The provinces north of the rivers Maas and Waal, which form a natural border between the three southern provinces and the remaining nine, declared independence from Spain as part of the Peace of Münster in the middle of the 17th century. This celebrated the end of the Eighty Years’ War (de Tachtigjarige Oorlog) also known as the Dutch War of independence.
This war had started because the wealthy Low Lands no longer wanted to be part of the gigantic Spanish empire in which the sun never set. A division occured between the north and south when Luther and his Protestantism gained more and more influence in the north. The south, including the Belgian provinces, remained true to its Catholic roots.
Carnaval heralds forty days of fasting until Easter. The aim of fasting is to control bodily needs. Its goal is to eat only what is absolutely necessary and obstain from intercourse to cleanse the mind and come closer to God – it can be compared with the Islamic ramadan. I personally think that is why we eat chocolate (eggs) at Easter; to celebrate we made it though the fast.
Every year Carnaval is celebrated on a different day, precisely because it needs to be forty days before Easter. And Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon of Spring. In other words, there is a period of about 35 days in which Easter might occur, approximately from early April to May.
The actual festivities nowadays commence on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, because eleven is the crazy number (and Carnaval is crayzay!) On that day Prince Carnaval is chosen and the carnaval associations start building their floats. Prince Carnaval is the president of the Council of Eleven and the floats are kept secret until the processions through towns and villages on the first day of Carnaval. There is generally a theme and a lot of humour.
Towns change their names, bring out banners in their own colours, and if you don’t have anything to wear you just throw on your boerenkiel (a work shirt typically worn by farmhands)!
Carnaval used to start on a Sunday and finish on the following Tuesday as fasting started on Wednesday. Today, it is save to assume that the crazy which is Carnaval in the (south of the) Netherlands starts on Friday when primary schools allow their students to come to school dressed up. It still finishes on Tuesday however. That is when everybody has had as much crazy as they can take and life goes back to normal (for a little while anyway).
Photos courtesy of Super Formosa Photography