Carnival in the Netherlands: Customs and Traditions Explained

Carnival in the Netherlands: Customs and Traditions Explained

Marking the start of the Christian fasting season of Lent, Carnival is a tradition celebrated around the world beginning on the sixth Sunday before Easter and ending on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.

Although widely associated with the celebrations in Maastricht, Carnival in fact takes place in a variety of Dutch towns and cities with distinct customs that, once you’re aware of, will help you better understand the reasoning behind the multitude of costumes and colours.

However, even amongst the Dutch themselves, the extent to which Carnival (also referred to as vastenavond) is observed remains divided.

While largely regarded as an odd-ball event by residents living north of the rivers Rhine and Meuse, the main cities in the historically Catholic southern provinces of North Brabant and Limburg still suspend daily life for three to five days of raucous revelry.

The Beginnings of Dutch Carnival

The first Dutch Carnivals took place in Den Bosch during the late 14th and 15th centuries in what was primarily an adaptation of a pagan celebration. Largely disappearing during the Reformation and throughout the 17th century, the feast was revived in the early 19th century in the southern provinces as an anchor for cultural identity while the Netherlands was under French rule.

However, Carnival in its current form in the Netherlands is quite recent, only taking place since the end of World War II, and now integrates elements of Italian, French and Germanic traditions.

Dutch Carnival Traditions Today

Most of the contemporary celebrations in the Netherlands are of the Burgundian tradition and include city name changes, parades and official colours. Although leaving their northern neighbours dumbfounded, the following rituals annually take place during Carnival in cities all over the south.

The Number 11 and the Prince of Carnival

In Germanic folklore, the number 11 is known as the "fool’s number." Thus, the number 11 still holds a significant place for a holiday that emphasises the prevalence of satire and the prominence of the jester.

On November 11 (11/11) each year, the city’s Council of 11 meets to vote for a Prince of Carnival. The Prince will preside over the Carnival proceedings, help to devise a motto and kick off the celebrations.

Rooted in medieval tradition, the ceremonious transfer of power that occurs on the first day of Carnival from the city's mayor to the Prince symbolises the suspension of daily life and officially initiates the party.

Historically, the commencement begins at 11.11am, but is now sometimes delayed.

Carnival Costumes and Role Reversal

No matter where you celebrate Carnival, a costume is highly recommended (and in some places required). The idea of dressing up is rooted in the essence of Carnival: social role inversions.

Since the Middle Ages, the idea of Carnival was to give those of lower social classes the opportunity to break free from strict conventions with no repercussions.

Flashing forward to the present celebrations, this ritual translates into an array of costumes including super-heroes, politically inspired mocks, a range of masks, elaborate city colours and more.

During the medieval period when norms were imposed by the Church and nobility, the costume helped to deflect any judgment of behaviour that would otherwise have severe personal consequences.

Today it serves a very similar function, as neighbours get drunk with each other, children see their parents cross-dressing and any semblance of political correctness is thrown to the wind.

The Featured Parade

Each city participating in Carnival will have a parade. Although the day on which the parade is held varies by city, all of them will feature floats designed by local associations and volunteers. Additionally, there is always a boat-like float on which the Prince of Carnival will ride.

Interestingly enough, these parades have a route, but the destinations are insignificant.

What matters is that members of the community come together and bond by parodying, critiquing and generally poking fun at city officials, current trends and events of the previous year.

The Music and Dance of Dutch Carnival

Beginning after World War II, Carnival began to develop a soundtrack of its own and it’s very... "schlager-esque."

Often performed by amateur (marching) bands, the music of Carnival is easy to dance to, catchy, infused with local dialect and can include content that is nonsensical, comically offensive or downright vulgar.

Of course where there’s music, there is dancing, but not dancing as you may know it. If you visit a Carnival party, get ready to witness (and partake!) in the hossen, sjoenkele, pogo-ing or a polonaise.

While the hossen and pogo-ing involve variations of jumping (in a group for the former, alone for the latter), the sjoenkele (swaying with your hands on your neighbours’ shoulders) and polonaise (a variation on the conga line) will require partners.

Where to Celebrate

Now that you know a bit more about Carnival, put your daily grind on hold and get to one of the beautiful cities of the south to revel like a local!

Photo credits: Flickr user FaceMePLS carnival 2014

Benjamin Garstka


Benjamin Garstka

Raised in Massachusetts. University years in New York City. Graduate school in Utrecht. Amsterdammer by choice. Cultuurliefhebber. Urbanist. Affinity for sarcasm, craft beers, art criticism, stand-up comedy and the Dutch...

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Frank Esser 11:48 | 9 February 2018

Everyone should experience the fun with carnaval in the netherlands. Best places to go are the big cities in the south like Maastricht, Den Bosch, Breda And Bergen op Zoom. But also try small towns like Prinsenbeek near Breda wich has on carnaval sunday the biggest parade of the Netherlands. Google on “BOEMELDONCK” the name of Prinsenbeek during carnaval And see for yourself. Have fun And enjoy the Unique atmosphere of carnaval.