Like pretty much any resident of Amsterdam, I wasn’t born here. While the original inhabitants have long moved to nearby cities like Lelystad en Almere for cheaper living, the city is nowadays populated with fame and fortune seekers from all over the country. Being born and raised in Breda, Brabant (known as the the pearl of the South), this goes for me too. And although I easily adjusted to the big city life, some things, deep embedded in your roots, just never disappear.
Carnaval is originally a catholic celebration prior to the fasting period. Where Muslims still celebrate their Eid (sugar holiday) after their period of fasting, the Southern Dutch Catholics celebrated for 3 days in a row (sunday till wednesday), before they had to stick to the bare minimum of food for the coming 40 days. The name ‘Carnaval’ is allegedly derived from the Latin expression ‘Carne, Vale!”, which means ‘goodbye meat’. With this not only animal meat was intended, whereas drinking and fornicating was always already indisputably connected.
Today, Carnaval is still celebrated vividly in the southern provinces Brabant and Limburg and some scattered villages throughout the rest of the country. Although neighboring provinces, Carnaval from Brabant is quite different from the Limburg version. Basically, in Limburg they celebrate a version called Rhineland Carnaval, which is descended from the carnaval from Cologne – Germany, which on its turn comes from the Venetian Carnaval (do you still follow?). In Brabant the ‘Bourgondisch Carnaval‘ was born as a costumed eat-feast, where people of all classes were equal for a few days and made fun with and of each other. Nowadays these differences are still noticeable in the costumes, music, traditions and general behavior.
Like any cultural event, Carnaval has its rules and traditions. Therefore every year, just before Carnaval, I see lists turning up with do’s and dont’s. The pity is that somehow these are often written by people who have no roots in it whatsoever and therefore only emphasize the shallow side of it (unfortunately the side the majority of the crowd sees). As Carnaval has much more to offer than many people know (even a large amount of the locals), hereby 15 tips to celebrate Carnaval the proper way:
15. The Carnaval season starts from the eleventh of November (11-11), with various pre-activities and parties between then and Carnaval itself. Attend one (or a few) of those to experience how the in-crowd celebrates it. Notice the respect for each other and for the organizing parties and council (De Raad van 11).
14. Go with a medium sized group of friends. Carnaval is a celebration that is done in groups to have a certain amount of social interaction and shared fun. Somehow it takes a few more drinks to blend in when you are just with when you are just with the two of you. Watch out not to go with a too large group, since bars are often already quite crowded and you do a lot of bar hopping. Minimize the amount of opinions and attend a group leader.
13. The costume is not only an important part of the whole celebration, but also an essential element leading up to the party. You can find inspiration from the annual Carnaval motto, news topics, trends, tv or remarkable happenings to come up with your outfit theme. Though as with every good plan, the execution is what counts. You will get much respect when you don’t show up in the pre-made costumes that you can buy ready-to-wear, but actually show some efforts with a self made costume. And don’t forget to accessorize, after 15 beers a lot of objects can all of a sudden be perfect for amusement.
12. Dress warmly. It’s winter time and so the temperature is usually between -2 and 10 degrees. In the bars then again it’s really warm. Think about this when making your outfit. If you spend time on a cool costume it’s a pity to hide it under your regular coat.
11. Go at least 3 days. You will never understand this thing when you visit for just one day. The intoxication of the multiday drinking is essential to get in the required mental status and rhythm. You’ll notice that the more hours you make the easier it gets and the more fun it will be.
10. Take care of yourself. If you do go die-hard for a 5 day full pull, you’ll notice that at least 20 beers a day (excluding shots of herbal liquor to warm up from the cold) requires the best of your body. My own strict rules are no alcohol in the days before and the days after, heavy breakfasts (eggs, burgers etc), make sure to skip lunches and dinners, take vitamin pills and eat at least 2 pieces of fruit per day (since you probably won’t be getting any vegetables). Make sure to purchase all necessary food, vitamins, juices and painkillers up front since you will not be mentally able to do groceries during Carnaval. So be smart and prepare!
9. Avoid bars who don’t play Carnaval music. Most people I speak say to have the biggest problem with the type of music. My advice is to shut up and embrace it. Did you enter a bar with pumping beats, guys with army outfits and girls dressed like sluts? Good luck, you just entered either a tourist- or a teenager bar.
8. Assign a treasurer. The downside of drinking for days in a row is that your brain starts malfunctioning and any challenges of financial nature will get under your skin. Make one person responsible, start off each day giving a certain amount of money or tokens to him or her and just wait till you’ll get tapped on the shoulder to get a round.
7. Carnaval is celebrated just as much at daytime as nighttime. Just like with the amount of days, the amount of hours is very important to reach the right mental status (stupid and happy). You’ll notice that you will start feeling bad when you spent too many hours sobering up at home before you go again. So wake up, have breakfast and make sure to be on your feet again around 1 PM.
6. Spend time outside on the squares and in front of bars. Carnaval is celebrated outside for a big part. Although it can be cold as hell, there are always many things to see and do on the streets. Often the most hysterical and memorable moments are experienced outside while hopping from bar to bar.
5. Read up where the organized events are. Usually every village or city has a website with the program announced. Following the council (Raad van 11) can often lead to places you’ve never been with oldschool Carnaval enthusiasts. Traditions like the opening and closing ceremonies are obligations to attend.
4. Have fun with strangers. The beauty of Carnaval is that everybody is in disguise so you will never recognize anybody ever again. As long as you are polite and show you are truly enjoying yourself anyone is open for a chat and a laugh. And yes, it does make flirting a bit easier too. (just be aware that all girls look prettier during Carnaval)
3. Do the ‘polonaise‘ (a human train of people). After all those years I still have not idea what’s fun about it, but it just is. And you won’t get it any more Dutch than that.
2. Never get mad. As said before, the high amount of alcohol gets to your body and so gets some people pretty short-fused. When somebody bumps into you or steps on your foot, there is no reason at all to respond. It’s crowded and it was probably not intended. When somebody is actually looking for trouble just ignore it and walk away. There is no reason to let anybody ruin your happy mood.
1. Relax. Just undergo it all and try not to force anything. There are many factors that can put you off (the cold, the overcrowded bars, the loud music, the change of plans, the long waits, the little sleep, the unhealthy food, the sore body, the protesting stomach etc etc), but when you are able to embrace them, the gains are worth it all!
Carnaval is without a doubt one of my favorite periods in the year. It’s an escape out of daily life to be costumed for 5 days in a row, having fun with your best friends and any stranger who is up for a laugh and a cheer. 5 days of no worries, except the worry that your glass is empty and your hands are shaking. Drink responsibly and have an awesome time!
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