Carnaval 2023: A guide to carnival celebrations in the Netherlands
One of the most hotly anticipated times of the year for certain people living in the Netherlands has got to be carnival. Read on to find out more about this fun and colourful Dutch tradition.
What is carnival?
In short, carnival is a Catholic celebration that takes place in the weeks leading up to the Easter holidays. Nowadays the holiday might have lost some of the more traditional religious elements, but originally carnival marked the beginning of Lent - the 40-day fasting period ahead of Easter which kicks off on Ash Wednesday.
The European city most strongly associated with carnival is probably Venice, but it’s celebrated here in the Netherlands too, largely in the southern regions, as these provinces are traditionally Catholic.
Carnival in the Netherlands is a melting pot of Dutch traditions with Italian, French and German elements. The three-day festival involves a reversal of social norms where revellers wear costumes, cities temporarily change their names, a Prince of Carnival is chosen, and daily life is put on hold to make way for parties!
The highlight of the carnival festivities is the Carnival Parade, in which a tour of large floats organised by local carnival associations pokes fun at established authorities and social conventions.
Image: www.hollandfoto.net via Shutterstock.com.
Carnaval, Vastenavond, or Vastelaovend?
Around the world, the celebration is generally known as and referred to as carnival, but here in the Netherlands it has its own name: carnaval. This is the most widely used term, and it encompasses carnival celebrations across all the Dutch cities and towns that celebrate the occasion.
As carnival takes place in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, it’s unsurprising that Shrove Tuesday plays a significant role in the celebrations. Shrove Tuesday - known as vastenavond in Dutch, which directly translates as “fasting evening” - marks the last day of carnival, and so is another term used to refer to the festivities held in the Netherlands.
Some parts of the country even have their own names; in the province of Limburg, for example, carnival is referred to as vastelaovend, which is the Limburgs word for vastenavond.
Is carnival a holiday in the Netherlands?
Sadly - but perhaps unsurprisingly for anyone familiar with Dutch public holidays - carnival is not a holiday in the Netherlands. Some companies located in the provinces known for their carnival celebrations (most notably North Brabant and Limburg) might be generous enough to give their workers a day or two off, but carnival is not a national public holiday.
There is some good news, however; schools do tend to close their doors over the Dutch carnaval period, as the school holidays which take place in February (known to some as the carnavalsvakantie) can coincide with the dates for carnival. This normally only happens in the southern regions (i.e. the provinces of Gelderland, Limburg, North Brabant and Zeeland).
A brief history of carnival
Back in the day, carnival was actually a pagan holiday, with evidence showing that the celebration is around 5.000 years old. In the 11th century, however, the Christian church assimilated the feast into their calendar to mark the three days leading up to Ash Wednesday that signal the beginning of Lent and the fasting period before the Easter holidays. Carnival was therefore used as an opportunity for families and households to eat and drink as much as they could ahead of Ash Wednesday.
Carnival has been celebrated in parts of the Netherlands for hundreds of years, but it was in the 19th century that the carnival celebrations that many people recognise and love today began to form, as costumes and parades took on a more central role in the festivities.
The Dutch carnival: Carnaval festival timeline
While every city in the Netherlands does carnaval a little differently, some aspects can be observed across the various celebrations. For example, several towns and cities will adopt a new name during the three-day celebration and they each have their own set of carnaval colours (more on that later).
Here are some more things you need to know about carnival celebrations in the Netherlands.
11/11: Carnaval starts
The number 11 is known as the "fool's number" and is widely used throughout carnaval. The carnival season actually officially begins on November 11. The actual feast might not take place until the lead-up to Ash Wednesday, but several unofficial carnaval events will be held from November 11 onwards.
The number 11 also plays a vital role in carnival festivities; 11.11am on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday generally marks the start of the feast.
While technically carnival doesn’t start until the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, in recent years an increasing number of events have also been organised for the Saturday - which is now occasionally referred to as carnival Saturday.
Where to celebrate carnival in the Netherlands
In 2023, carnaval takes place between February 19 and February 21. Want to get involved in Dutch carnival celebrations this year? Here’s everything you need to know about what’s happening in the Netherlands.
Eindhoven is one of the key cities when it comes to annual carnaval celebrations. Throughout the festive period, the city is renamed Lampegat (lamp hole), in reference to the Dutch electronics company Philips, which was founded in the city in 1891. Eindhoven’s carnaval colours are orange and blue.
Carnival in Maastricht
Heading a little further south, carnaval in Maastricht is definitely an all-out affair. Celebrations kick off when the Prince’s Flag is hoisted on Sunday, and 11 canon shots mark the official start of the festivities. The city also hosts parades on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, with Monday marked as the official family day.
While Maastricht isn’t really renamed for carnaval, the city does adopt traditional carnival colours: red, yellow and green.
Vastelaovend in Limburg
Maastricht might be the biggest city in Limburg, but it isn’t the only place in the province hosting its own carnaval celebrations. The carnival colours of red, green and yellow apply throughout the province, and the season generally kicks off on November 11 with a big party in Roermond.
Many towns in the province adopt their traditional Limburgs name for carnaval - Heerlen, for example, becomes Heële, while Roermond becomes Remunj. One city does get a fun carnaval name though: Venlo is renamed Jocus Riék for the duration of the festivities.
Carnival celebrations throughout Limburg are similar to those seen in cities in North Brabant, although they are likely to be more traditional than some of the events held in the bigger cities.
Den Bosch Carnival
Den Bosch is another city famous for its carnival celebrations. The city is renamed Oeteldonk for the festivities, and it takes on the official symbol of a frog and the carnival colours of red, white and yellow. During carnaval in Den Bosch, the event's "monarch" makes an appearance at Den Bosch Centraal station on Sunday, and the city hosts a massive parade on Monday.
Carnival isn’t really a tradition in Amsterdam, but there are a couple of events to be found here and there. Nightclubs in the Dutch capital are particularly good places to look if you’d like to get into the carnaval spirit, and there might also be a couple of small events involving costumes and face painting for younger children.
Image: Ruud Morijn Photographer via Shutterstock.com.
How to celebrate carnival (carnaval) in the Netherlands in 2023
There are plenty of things you can do for carnival this year - go big or go home, right? If you really want to immerse yourself in Dutch carnaval celebrations, here are a couple of things you can do.
Carnival in the Netherlands is great simply because of how much fun there is to be had. It’s a time of year when the weather isn’t normally too good, and many people don’t have that much to look forward to, but the bright costumes and silly games are sure to brighten up even the dreariest winter days.
If you want to plan some carnaval celebrations of your own, one great way to get everyone up and having fun is to organise some carnival games. Examples of some classics include a costume competition, carnival-themed bingo or quizzes, or a balloon race, where participants have to hold a balloon between their knees and make it from point A to point B without popping or dropping it.
Carnival costumes in the Netherlands
A bit like during Halloween, carnival in the Netherlands is an occasion where pretty much anything goes - so long as you make a bit of an effort and dress up. Are you low on carnival outfit ideas? Here are some tips that are guaranteed to make your decision-making process a little easier:
- If you’re attending a carnaval event in a specific city, you’ll want to incorporate the traditional carnival colours of that region.
- Remember that masks play a key role in carnaval celebrations, so try to go for a costume that involves a mask or at least some face paint.
- The more colourful the better - don’t worry too much about what you’re wearing or what you look like, just have fun!
- You can go super traditional and dress up in the classic Venetian carnival costume (mask and all!), but traditional Dutch costumes typically involve some kind of black or red military-style jacket.
Still not sure what to do? Here are some classics that are guaranteed winners, no matter where or how you choose to celebrate this year:
Plan your carnival 2023 celebrations
So, get your carnival costume ready, choose your city of celebration and get ready to enjoy one of the most fun, friendly and colourful annual celebrations in the Netherlands.
Thumb: Hung Chung Chih via Shutterctock.com.