What’s Up with Carnival?
Credits: Limburg 1 – L1.nl
Growing up, I always associated carnival with Rio de Janeiro or New Orleans; the bright colours, the feathers, the music, everyone dancing and singing. To me, carnival Tuesday had always been Shrove Tuesday, or, as my childhood self knows it, Pancake Day.
Coming to the South of the Netherlands, however, opened my eyes to the fact that carnival seems to be more about drinking and partying. Rather than my beloved pancakes, I saw the colours red, yellow and green pop up all around the city, as well as people dressed in some of the most dramatic clothes I have ever seen. Also, carnival suddenly started on 11thNovember. For all of you who love a party but were as confused as I was, the next 500 words or so should help make some sense of it.
Essentially, all forms of carnival have the same reasoning to them, whether you eat all the pancake you can get your hands on, or whether you are dancing on Copa Cabana. Carnival is usually a Catholic holiday which is exactly 40 days before Easter and marks the beginning Lent. In this period Catholics may fast or give up something they enjoy in remembrance of Jesus’ 40-day journey through the desert. In other words; carnival is your last chance to indulge before Easter.
Carnival in the Netherlands is really only celebrated ‘under the rivers’. The Maas River divides the Protestants to the north and Catholics to the south. Despite being a small part of a small country, there is much division between the carnival celebrating regions. The best way to illustrate this is to compare Maastricht to ‘s-Hertogenbosch (called Oeteldonk during carnival) where carnival is almost the opposite to what it is here.
While the colours of the two cities are not wildly different (red, yellow and green in Maastricht and red, white and yellow in Oeteldonk), the basis of their celebrations are reversed. Maastricht follows the Rhineland’s style of carnival, which can similarly be seen in Germany and Belgium. This carnival is all about the dressing up, which, historically, was a chance for people of a lower status to feel like the aristocracy. Masks are important because they are worn to hide your identity making it possible for people from all walks of life to mingle for three days. Today this dressing up has altered slightly to allow for people to run around as S.W.A.T teams or farm animals.
In Oeteldonk, it is frowned upon to dress up in that way for carnival. This is because they celebrate ‘farmer’s carnival’ where everyone is equal because they share the same farmer’s status; possibly the only time and place a classless society exists. It is worth noting that the equality is between the citizens of Oeteldonk and does not necessarily extent to people who come to visit for carnival. Their clothing reflects this. The boerenkiel is a blue farmer’s jacket on which they sew emblems from each year they participate in carnival. It is easy to spot the carnival veterans in the mass. Besides this jacket, a scarf with the red, white, and yellow colours is worn, usually combined with matching gloves. If you stand out, you’re doing something wrong. Unless you come from Oeteldonk (or have the right connections) it is harder to come by the right clothing, making it possible that bouncers do not let you into the more traditional pubs.
Each city does have a Prince; however, these are also quite different. Prince Carnival in Maastricht must be born and raised in Maastricht, have exactly two children (a boy and a girl), and must have a good income so that he can take some days off work to host parties. As the carnival season begins in November, the Prince is in service of Maastricht for about four months and each year a new one is to be chosen. This could be called the most exclusive job in town.
In Oeteldonk, the Prince is absolutely not allowed to be from the city or its regions. To ensure that all people of Oeteldonk are equal, the Prince has to be someone from ‘above the rivers’. He must be chosen through a student association in Delft (because this makes a lot of sense), comprised of youth originally from ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Once the Prince is chosen, he stays Prince until he decides he’s had enough. There is a post, however, which is chosen each year: the Peer who becomes the acting mayor of Oeteldonk and is the most farmer of all the famers.
Whichever carnival you are celebrating, it is always about having fun, drinking together, and singing your lungs out. Whether you enjoy the fraternal nature of Oeteldonk carnival, or the more anonymous nature of Maastricht carnival, don’t forget to enjoy your last night of indulgence.
Ella Goemans studies European Studies at UM and edits/writes for the Maastricht Diplomat