What do we celebrate during Carnival?
The word Carnival comes from the Italian “carne levare”, which literally means “to take away the meat”. Traditionally, Christians were supposed to fast during the period between Carnival and Easter. During this period, they would abstain from many things, including alcohol, sweets, and – as the name implies – meat. Just before the start of the fasting period, there would be a great celebration to indulge in these things one last time before "bidding them farewell".
Carnival begins on February 1 at the earliest and March 9 at the latest, but the exact date varies from year to year depending on Easter. Easter, in fact, is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full month of spring. Exactly 46 days before that, we celebrate Carnival.
"Ash Wednesday". The day after Carnival and the first day of fasting.Traditionally, Christians would go to church on this day and the priest would give everyone an ash cross on the forehead while saying: “Dust thou art, and into dust shalt thou return”.
Where do we celebrate Carnival?
Carnival can mainly be found in the Southern parts of the Netherlands. Northern-Brabant and Limburg begin the absolute frontrunners. But, why there? The North of the Netherlands used to be mainly Protestant, while the South was mainly Catholic. Back in the days Carnival was predominantly celebrated by Catholics, so it's no coincidence the (former) Catholic parts of the Netherlands are the ones still celebrating the event today.
"Lampegat". During Carnival, every city gets a temporary 'Carnival name'. Eindhoven, for example, becomes Lampegat (as a referance to Philips). Curious what other cities are called during Carnival? Have a look at the Carnival map of Northern-Barbant.
More than a Christian tradition
So Dutch Carnival seems to have primarily Christian origins, but the history of Carnival goes back even further. Long before Christianity made its appearance, pagans already celebrated many Carnival-like festivals. Including the Romans. They regularly held so-called reversal rituals. During these “social reversals,” the roles in society were literally reversed. So, for just a couple of days, the poor got to be in charge instead of the rich, and the common man took the place of the rulers. A few days in which literally everything was turned upside down.
Like many pagan traditions, this one was also adapted into a Christian one with the advent of Christianity. This is why we still have elements of the “social reversal” from the Roman reversal rituals in our current Carnival celebrations. In fact, every year, a Prince Carnival is crowned in each city. During an official ceremony, the mayor of the respective city hands over the “control” over the city to the new Prince Carnival, along with the “key” to the city (which may vary from enormous wooden keys, to bicycle keys and anything in between).
"The eleventh of the eleventh". Every year, on the 11th of November, or 11/11, the new Prince Carnival and his 'Council of Eleven' is elected. It's no coincidence the number eleven is popping up so much. It used to be labelled as 'the crazy number' because it lies in between 10 (the perfect number) and 12 (the holy number). That's why, during Carnival, many bars open their doors at exactly 11:11.
Carnival in 2024
So Carnival is a combination of chaos, madness and parody stemming from Roman traditions on the one hand, and one last time of letting loose just before the start of the Christian fasting period, on the other. That’s good to know, but what can you actually expect this weekend?
People usually dress up for Carnival. Some start planning their dream constume and the perfect makeup months in advance, others quickly put on their frog onesie or draw two black lines on their cheeks and call themselves rugby players. Feel free to do whatever you like, but of course, it would be fun if you made some effort to join in. A piece of advice: be prepared for high temperatures. Some places have a fan on the ceiling (usually to no avail), but most places are incredibly hot inside. So make sure to wear layers so you don’t catch a cold outside or melt inside.
Carnival is known for its bad music, "Carnavalskrakers”, or Carnival hits. Every year, classics such as “Er staat een paard in de gang” [there is a horse in the hallway] are played to death. Of course, new hits are added to the list every year, but don’t worry, “normal” music is also played in between all these Carnival songs. The music is usually deafeningly loud, so bringing earplugs is definitely recommended. Forgot to bring them? If you really can’t take it anymore you can always stuff some toilet paper in your ears.
Hordes of people
Be prepared, it’s going to get crowded! If you don’t like crowds or if you’re claustrophobic I’d suggest skipping Carnival because it’s going to be a weekend full of pushing, pulling and waiting in line (often outside). If you are brave enough to step into this sea of people, remember to bring your ID. It’d be a shame if, after a long wait, they can’t let you in because you don’t have your ID on you.
“Alaaf”. The official Carnival greeting. Some say it comes from the word "eleven", also known as the crazy number. Others agree it's related to the German Carnival saying "All ab", which means something as "All gone". And few believe it has something to do with the Celtic word for "happines"'.