What is Carnaval in the Netherlands? When is it held? Where can I see it in the Nijmegen / Arnhem region? When are the carnival parades? What should I wear?

If you’re accustomed to dividing Europe into ‘cold Northerners’ and ‘hot-blooded Southerners’, you might be surprised to find that at least part of the Netherlands goes mad for several days once a year. What provokes this madness? It’s Carnaval, the few days preceding Lent, the traditional 40 days of fasting before Good Friday and the Easter weekend. In the UK, the nearest thing we have to it are summer carnivals, the best-known of which is the Notting Hill carnival. In the US, the equivalent is probably Macy’s parade or Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Here, it the equivalent of the Brazilian Mardi Gras, with the distinct difference that the temperatures are often freezing. In any case, it’s the last chance to have fun before the sober time of Lent, preparing for the highs and lows of the Easter period.

A Dutch carnival band, taken in the 1980s
A Dutch carnival band, taken in the 1980s
My first fancy dress costume for Carnaval, 1987
My first fancy dress costume for Carnaval, 1987

In 2015, Carnaval is from Sunday 15 – Tuesday 17 February
In the UK, we have Pancake Day on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday. Time to use up all the eggs and milk and butter that people used to be expected to renounce in Lent. In the Netherlands (and parts of Belgium and Germany), there are 3 whole days of partying, beer-drinking, dressing up, parades and generally going mad. In the south of the country (‘below the rivers’), where Roman Catholicism was strongly embedded, carnival is celebrated by a high percentage of the population. So much so that some businesses close down for the duration. Some people don’t go home for 3 days, spending their time in bars and Carnival associations.

They say if you didn’t grow up celebrating carnival, you can’t really understand it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a lot of fun, especially if you enjoy dressing up, singing along to Dutch oompah-type music and dancing with complete strangers, all of whom are drunk on life (and most of them on beer as well).

Don’t miss the carnival parade – De optocht
Even if you’re not keen on any of those things, it’s fun to watch the carnival parade, the optocht. Every year many of the parades are based on a theme, declared by the Prins Carnaval. They are often things like magic, the beach, circus or some special occasion. This year in Arnhem, for example, the theme is ‘Carnival in peace’ as the city is celebrating 70 years of liberation. Carnival associations get together to build carnival floats (based on flatbed trucks, trailers behind tractors and the like) with huge constructions of wire and pâpier maché. Often they have moving parts such as a dragon that turns its head. Like pantomime jokes in the UK, they often make fun of events, politics or personalities of the past year. Everyone who takes part in the parade dresses to fit into the theme of the parade or the club’s own theme, with prizes going to the best floats and costumes. It’s not only carnival associations that get involved. Groups of friends, families or individuals can also dress up and take part, often pushing a wheelbarrow or pram with a funny slogan. It’s not compulsory, but it makes it more fun if the spectators dress up too.

Carnival associations
Local carnival associations are clubs that get together several times a year. Leading up to carnival itself, they have to agree on how they are going to make their float and what their costumes will be. Then, of course, they have to make them. The designs are jealously-guarded secrets so the building takes place in the utmost secrecy in barns or large outbuildings. Only on the day of the parade are they driven to the starting point and revealed to other carnival associations.

Costumes – What should I wear? Where can I buy it?
It’s not only the participants in the parade who wear costumes, many of the spectators do too. If you love dressing up, this is your chance! If you’ll be going to a bar or event, it’s almost compulsory. Like dressing up for fancy dress parties or Halloween, you can be as low-key or as flamboyant as you want, but avoid anything too cryptic; you don’t want to have to yell at the top of your voice over the loud music to explain what your costume is about. Bear in mind that if you’re wearing a costume to watch the parade or going on a pub crawl at night, that it’s cold in February, though you’ll soon warm up once you’re jumping up and down to the music indoors. In Den Bosch, it’s traditional to wear the boerenkiel, a dark blue farmer’s smock, with a red and white neckerchief. Great for wearing over your coat or several layers of clothes to keep you warm outside.

Many shops have special carnaval costume sections. Full costumes are often over-priced and poor quality, especially for children, so if you’re not really a fancy dress enthusiast, you can go a long way with brightly-coloured accessories like hats, feather boas, face paint and coloured hairspray. They have a wide range at Intertoys. There are some places that have a huge range of carnival costumes. Try:

For other places, take a look at the carnavalskleren.com website.
Second hand clothes online at marktplaats.nl or in second hand shops. Het Goed in Nijmegen always has a selection at this time of year.

Where can I see Carnaval parades in the Arnhem / Nijmegen region?

Carnaval date table
Carnaval date table part 2

I found most of the dates on www.feestdagenoverzicht.nl. Please follow the links to individual parades or look in local press to check the dates and times before you go. I’d hate you to miss the parade because of a typo.
The regional newspaper De Gelderlander has made a wonderful interactive Google Map with links to all the carnival organisations and parades. The eye mask with feathers symbols show the carnival organisations. The yellow comedy/tragedy mask shows the parades. Click on them for more details.

Sources for more info:
www.vvvarnhemnijmegen.nl – details of routes, starting times.

De Gelderlander carnaval file

If you go to watch one of carnival parades, have fun and don’t forget your camera. There’s lots more to say about Dutch Carnaval, so I’ll write some more about that in another post.