Carnival in the Netherlands; North versus South


May the most flamboyant festival in the year: Carnival! Or, more specifically, the Southern Netherlands, like the province of Limburg and North Brabant. However, did you know Carnival is celebrated as well by inhabitants of the province of Groningen? And in the area of Emmen, in the south-eastern corner of the province of Drenthe? Where does this festival originate from? And, in what ways do the festivals differ between the Dutch regions?

Two flavours of Carnival

In the Netherlands, Carnival is celebrated in two different ways, namely the Rijnlands and Bourgondisch Carnival. The first one originates from Cologne, a city in Germany. In the ancient times, Cologne was established as a Roman Fortress. The Roman worshipped two gods, Saturnus and Dionysos, with festivals in which ‘’Wein, Weib und Gesang’’ stood central (Wine, Woman and Sing-ing).

Until 1823, the festival of Carnival survived among the citizens and society. In that year, ‘’Festordnende Komitee’’ (festival committee) was established and the ‘’Rosenmontagszug’’ (The Carnival parade on Monday) became alive. In that period, one of the main points of ideology was that the citizenry was mocking with the Prussian governor. They were, surprisingly enough, led by the playfully named Prince of Carnival. This type of Carnival is merely celebrated by the inhabitants of the province of Limburg and the eastern regions of the province of North Brabant. The second version, which is celebrated among Den Bosch, Tilburg and Eindhoven (or respectively called Oeteldonk, Kruikenstad and Lampegat during Carnival) is about changing the social relationships and equality for a few days of the year in the city. There, the folk is led by, again, the Prince of Carnival who takes over the city for a few days.

In another perspective, Carnival is closely related to the Catholic church. Carnival is part of this religious movement since 1091. The festival was linked with their Lent period (Vastentijd in Dutch). Therefore, Carnival in Limburg is also called ‘’Vastelaovend’’, meaning the evening before the Lent period. Also, the word Carnival originates from the words Carne and Vale, which mean meat and goodbye. This links with the fact that Catholic people did not eat meat during their Lent period.

Carnival dress

Carnival is all about the costume. It is often said that ‘’The more flamboyant, the better’’ is the only true rule about the costume. In Limburg people use a lot of colours and costumes and paint their face in a lot of different ways, which is called ‘Schminken’ in German. The typology is linked to the colours red, yellow and green. Clowns, Pirates, Vikings, Indians, Devils, Priests; it could be anything!

The Bourgondisch Carnival has a stricter dress code. Since this typology is about equality, most people dress the same: the Boerenkiel. This costume does has many little differences, mostly based on the city or region. In Bergen op Zoom, for example, they wear the Boerenkiel with buttons in the front and an old piece of curtain around their neck. In Den Bosch, they have embroidered buttons and a red, white and yellow scarf.

Carnival in Kloosterburen; Kronkeldörp during Carnival

Kloosterburen is a village in the high North of the province of Groningen which has traditionally been a Catholic village.

There used to be two monasteries, which were dating from 1175 and 1204. When Prince Maurits enforced the introduction of Protestantism in 1594 in the region, both monasteries were destroyed. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of Kloosterburen remained Catholic and continued to meet in secret. Since the 18th century, Protestantism lost influence again and a new Catholic church was built in 1842 in Kloosterburen. That was the moment when a Catholic enclave came alive again in the Groningen Protestant North. In this sense, it is also said that a ‘’lost tuft of Catholics’’ brought the Carnival festival to Kloosterburen.

It was not even restricted to Kloosterburen; a group of Oldenzalers brought the Carnival festival to Twente after the World War II and a Limburgian teacher introduced the Carnival festival in Barger-Compascuum near Emmen.


As outlined in this article, the Carnival festival started in the Southern Netherlands and abroad, since it is linked with the history of Germany, the Catholic religion movement and it even races back to the traditions of the Romans. Although it is still way more often celebrated in the South rather than in the North, this does not mean that it is not celebrated in the North of the Netherlands as there are some regions, among those mentioned in this article, which do celebrate this unique tradition.

Sometimes I speak to people who tell me that they do not understand Carnival and that they could not imagine to be part of it. In this sense, I definitely agree, that it is and should be some sort of a cultural spirit of which you are simply a part or not. Luckily, or unfortunately, I do have it!

This article was published in the Northern Netherlands edition, May 2018.

Top photo: by Author, 2018.


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