This is one of the odder traditions in a continent full of odd traditions (Krampus, anyone?). Carnival is a Roman Catholic religious holiday from the same Easter tradition as Mardi Gras in the United States. It’s three days of excess and celebration before the fasting, deprivation, soul-searching and repenting that start with Lent in the run up to Easter. Except, very, very few Europeans actually observe the religious Lent while the streets are alive with Carnival over multiple days.
This is not one homogeneous tradition.
Where we used to live in Germany, it’s Fasching, with lots of beer, music and craziness. In Luxembourg, it’s a more family friendly Fuesend. In Venice, the rich turn out in wildly elaborate masks and couture outfits.
City-to-city Carnival traditions
Now, here’s where it gets weird. In the small country of the Netherlands, Carnival is different from town-to-town. Go “above the rivers,” 50 miles north of Dispatches’ headquarters city of Eindhoven, and there is no Carnival because Amsterdam et al are in under the somber, abstemious influence of Lutheranism. Here in the South, the population is heavily Roman Catholic, with far more in common with nearby Germany from the local dialects to their appreciation of good beer.
Yet, in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, just a few miles north of Eindhoven, it’s a completely different experience.
Last year, we turned up in Den Bosch with American friends from Belgium to find the streets totally clogged with partiers. What struck us as odd was, the crowds were young, organized into cliques, all dressed the same and most in black. They struck us as very, very serious about drinking.
It was a strange vibe.
It wasn’t fun.
Yesterday, we went to Eindhoven and it was joyous … and huge! With all ages partying together.
The Dutch know how to party!
We ran into neighbors Eimert and his family, and Eimert told us the crowd was estimated at 100,000 celebrants along the parade route from the centrum to the south side of the city. And it looked like it. We only made it to the edge where the parade ended, but it was the defining Dutch characteristics distilled into one huge celebration.
The joie de vivre, the friendliness, the silliness and the creativity. Oh, and the love of Dutch/German schlager pop music, with its relentless beat and saccharine sound including “Sweet Caroline” and “Hey Jude,” with Dutch lyrics.
I was really inspired by the costumes. Sure, a lot of people just put on crazy outfits without much thought. But here, where friends and family are close, I saw a lot of coordinated group themed costumes.
Big looks for 2024 included Alice in Wonderland characters. A lot of Martians in silver space suits. Lots of huge dinosaur outfits. 1960s hippies. Pirates, pirates and more pirates including Johnny Depps “Pirates of the Caribbean” lookalikes. There was Louis XVI with his head and Marie Antonette without. We saw two Jesuses a few yards apart, and across from a “Make America Great Again” stand (above) with a guy handing out beer.
The one thing that stuck me was that everyone, everywhere was singing. Spontaneously singing as well as singing along with the song meister, who led the singing from the parade reviewing stand. This uninhibited spontaneity and sense of group identity are lost in the U.S.
We live in a small village about 15 miles south of Eindhoven and Eimert told us that we simply had to go to the Carnival in neighboring Leende, which has its own traditions. If we can get our work out of the way, maybe we will. BUT, next year we’ll be on the Hooflaan parade route through Eindhoven and we have a year to come up with costumes that indulge in our wildest fantasies.
Being a quasi-Jewish American, none of this make any sense. What I can tell you for certain is, in Eindhoven, Carnival is really fun and no expat should miss a chance to join in.
Read more about Eindhoven here in Dispatches’ archives.