While British families are stocking up on flour, milk and eggs in preparation for national Pancake Day on Tuesday 13 February, parts of the Netherlands are starting their 5-day debauchery called Carnaval today. Although these two events may seem worlds apart, they are actually very closely related.
Carnival frenzy in the south of the Netherlands
When you think of carnival, the first image that comes to mind will probably be bikini-clad dancers shaking their hips to percussive samba music. This might be appropriate in an exotic country such as Brazil, but would lead to pneumonia if copied in the Netherlands. Carnival, or ‘carnaval’ in Dutch, is typically celebrated in the southern provinces below the three main rivers (the Maas (Meuse), Waal and the Rijn (Rhine)). In the past, the northern parts of the country were predominantly Protestant, while the southern provinces were Catholic. Since carnival is linked to Catholicism (more about this later), carnival is still mostly celebrated in the South.
When I first moved from the most northern Dutch province to the South, I could not stand carnival. I absolutely hated the schlager-like music that’s played loudly everywhere you go. There’s no hiding from carnival in the South! But then one day I guess I was touched by the Spirit of Carnaval and nowadays I usually lead the polonaise (conga line), waving my arms in the air whilst singing along the carnival hits. I don’t know what caused this, perhaps there’s something in the tap water.
Jug pissers and wall poopers
During carnival, most towns and cities in the southern provinces are known by their alternative names. These names are often ironic references to the town’s or city’s history. Take for example Heusden, the medieval fortification I grew up in. Its carnival name is Wallepoepersland, loosely translated as ‘Wall Poopers Land’ (defensive walls are called ‘wallen’ in Dutch). Waalwijk, another city in the South where I used to live, is called Schoenlapperslaand – Cobbler Country – a reference to the city’s former shoe industry. People from Tilburg, my last Dutch hometown before moving to the UK, are called Kruikenzeikers which translates as ‘Jug Pissers’. In the past, Tilburg was known for its thriving textile industry and human urine was used to treat wool. Better not put that info in the tourist guides!
Showing your colours
What is Dutch carnival all about? In short: dressing up, excessive alcohol consumption and waving your arms in the air along Dutch brass music. This is a very black and white picture of course, but quite accurate for most carnival-goers. However, there’s a fair bit of tradition underneath all this hedonistic behaviour. Here are some highlights:
- During carnival towns and cities are taken over by Prince Carnival and his ‘Council of Eleven’, often including a princess and a jester. The number 11 plays an important role in carnival. In the South it’s called ‘The Number of Fools’ and 11-11 (11 November) marks the start of carnival season each year.
- You could dress up as extravagant as you wish, nothing is too wild! Or dress up in the traditional carnival outfit of a blue boerenkiel (‘peasant’s blouse’) and a big woollen scarf in the carnival colours of your city. This would be a combination of at least two of the traditional colours court jesters would wear hundreds of years ago: red, yellow and green. It’s very important you choose your colours wisely!
- Almost each city has its own big carnival parade where dozens of groups enter with their elaborate floats. These parades are one of the biggest highlights of the carnival celebrations and groups tend to work on their float for months.
Feasting before fasting
Don’t be surprised when you see dressed up carnival-goers in church, they didn’t get lost in some delirious state. During carnival some churches have a special Carnival Mass. As I mentioned earlier, carnival is connected to Catholicism. The roots for carnival are actually heathen, but instead of trying to abolish it, the church found it easier to incorporate it into Christianity. There are various theories about its origins, but the roots for carnival are simply put very practical. Imagine living in a time when there weren’t fridges or freezers. Meat from animals slaughtered in autumn would be conserved in a different way, but had to be finished before spring to ensure it wouldn’t go rotten. During the last weeks of winter, there wouldn’t be much food left, so people would have a modest diet for a while.
Nowadays carnival is celebrated 40 days before Easter. Immediately after carnival it’s the start of Lent, the Catholic period of fasting and abstinence. Carnival is therefore the last time people can indulge in food, drinks and other sumptuous behaviour before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, starts. While most of my Dutch friends celebrate carnival, I don’t know anyone who actually uses the 40 days between carnival and Easter as a period of fasting and praying though.
Flipping pancakes before Lent
It’s no coincidence that the last day of carnival, Shrove Tuesday, coincides with Pancake Day in the UK. The word Shrove comes from ‘shrive’, which means “to obtain absolution for one’s sins by way of Confession and doing penance.” (Source) In other countries Shrove Tuesday is also known as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday. In the Netherlands it’s called vastenavond, ‘Fasting Eve’. No matter how you prefer to call it, In Christianity this day marks the day before Lent.
Pancake Day is meant to finish off fatty food items in your cupboard that shouldn’t be eaten during Lent, such as butter, milk, eggs and sugar. Besides simply eating pancakes, it’s also (a modern) tradition to have Pancake races in the UK. I happened to be visiting the lovely town of Olney last year, known as the birthplace of pancake races. It’s said that the first race here took place in 1445 already! During the race, contestants (often in fancy dress) race down the street whilst tossing a pancake in the air three times and catching it in the pan again. If you’re interested in cheering on race contestants in London this Shrove Tuesday, have a look at the Time Out website for an overview of events.
Do you celebrate carnival or Pancake Day? Let me know what these dates mean to you!
Have a great time and enjoy your hedonistic extravaganza before Lent 🙂