“the priests wear masks during mass, they dance in the choir dressed as women, matchmakers or minstrels and sing outrageous songs. On the altar they eat black pudding and fat sausages. They roll dices and old shoes are burned instead of incense. Also there is running and jumping by them inside the church. After this mass they go out on the streets in their disguises. With carts and wagons they roam through the city, and give shameless performances to excite the laughter of the audience, which they also further incite with filthy songs and obscene gestures.”
This is not a description of the end of the world, but a (very critical) view of carnival in the Middle Ages. Medieval society was strictly regulated: people were supposed to know their place and live life according to the rules assigned to their position, without complaining and without seeking improvement. Social change was subversive, a threat to the divine world order. There was an exception though: the carnival period, a feast with roots in Pagan times, that had been reluctantly accepted by the Church.
For a few days every year, rules were suspended. Three days before the beginning of Lent, the city officials handed over the power to “Prince Carnival” and his aides, and a social revolution took place. Rank and position were no longer important and people could freely express their opinion and mock anything and anyone. Mockery was directed especially against public authorities (a unique opportunity to do it without retribution). People wore costumes, the cities temporarily changed their names, and daily life was put on hold. The celebrations grew ever more complex and more expensive until the beginning of the 17th century. Then they were halted under the influence of Reformation, to be revived at the beginning of the 19th century, but only in the Catholic South.
While today’s carnival lost most of its deeper meanings, it is still a funny event to attend. The centerpiece is the parade (optocht), with dozens of floats moving slowly through the city, in the sound of the silliest music available (usually parodies of popular songs). The floats are build by special carnival associations, often over a period of several months. A prize is awarded to the best float of the day. A bit of social protest is still present: authorities are still ridiculed in songs or speeches, and events from the past year are represented often in a very politically incorrect manner.
Don’t expect the elegance of the Venetian carnival. The whole event is outrageously kitsch, a unique opportunity to make fun of yourself and dress with the most exquisite bad taste. While festivities started already in November, the peak of the 2016 carnival is between 7 and 9 February, according to the Catholic religious calendar. The biggest Dutch carnival is in Maastricht, but Eindhoven, Den Bosch, Breda or Tilburg have equally lively events, and smaller parties can be found pretty much everywhere in the South. Let your inner child take control and enjoy this world upside down, at least for a day : )
The photos posted are from the 2015 carnival in Eindhoven and Den Bosch. For better planning, see below a link to the carnival web pages for Maastricht, Den Bosch, Breda and Eindhoven. Unfortunately all pages are only in Dutch: