by Shweta Vermeulen-Sulladmath
Carnaval is the one of the biggest celebration in the Southern part of The Netherlands. This big traditional event is officially celebrated for 3 days in ‘s Hertogenbosch, or Den Bosch and other parts of Southern Netherlands. However this celebration starts much earlier and oh boy, the Dutch know how to enjoy during this crazy frenzy! Den Bosch, a beautiful city in the province of North Brabant (Noord Brabant) is re-named during the Carnaval as Oeteldonk, which translates to ‘ Frog’s Town ‘.  A little birdie told me that the frog symbolises fertility and others say that it also comes from the swamps of Den Bosch. In the olden times, Den Bosch was an area full of swamps which is currently the nature area of The Bossche Broek, which was home to many frogs.
Oeteldonk Carnaval’s chosen statement this year was “Van keinds af aon”. This is a dialect of North Brabant. The statement can be literally translated to “ Start celebrating carnival from your childhood which the Brabantders ‘, do so with full zeal and enthusiasm. For some, this celebration is a kind of a trance party with music and dance. For others, it is a meeting place for meeting young and the old and yet for the children, it is an entire week of school holidays. Carnival also celebrates oneness and equality! Equality is considered very important in the Dutch culture. The entire city and the people come alive during the cold grey winter month of February. If you are lucky and blessed, the sun could be shining. This year we were lucky as the sun was shining along with rain, hailstones and wait a minute, there was no snow? Hmmmm….it can happen! How is that possible that we did not get all different types of weather in one day! I guess we were luckier than we thought!
Carnival (Dutch: Carnaval; also called “vastenavond” – eve of the fasting or Limburgish: “vastelaovend”) is a festival held throughout the Netherlands, mainly in the Southern regions, with an emphasis on role-reversal and suspension of social norms. The feast was assimilated by the Catholic Church, taking elements from ancient pagan spring festivals and is celebrated in the three days preceding the Christian holidays of Ash Wednesday and Lent.
From an anthropological point of view, Carnaval is a reversal ritual, in which social roles are reversed and norms about desired behavior are suspended. Winter was thought of as the reign of the winter spirits that were to be driven out for the summer to return. Carnaval can thus be regarded as a rite of passage from darkness to light, from winter to summer: a fertility celebration, the first spring festival of the New Year.  Carnaval celebration in current times:
Carnaval in current times is celebrated with more fanfare. A common sight during this celebration is, the blue blazers, which the people wear. The blazer is stitched with many cartoons like characters. This is the traditional ‘Boerenkiel ‘. This is a coat, which the farmers and workers used to wear during olden times. It was actually worn over your clothes and it was made of linen or cotton and it was dark blue in colour.  Until this day people wear it to show equality amongst the general folk. One of the important beliefs on carnaval was and still is, that everyone is treated equal, be a person from a low-income background, a person with pots and pots of money, a minister or even a farmer. This celebration also gives people, the opportunity to dress up in crazy costumes. These costumes can be as unconventional like a jester, a clown or even dressing up in the opposite sex, a bit like a fancy dress competition for children which some of you might know of! This is role reversal, which originated during olden times, and the people would dress up crazily, without being judged. If this really happened in the olden times, is something I have always wondered? One has to see it to believe it…I had a huge culture shock when I saw it for the first time. For example, a man dressed as a baby wearing enormous pampers which was a costume. Another very vivid memory was of a man dressed as a woman with huge breasts, which again was a costume. And the craziness continues with different types of costumes. Over the years I have learnt to appreciate theextreme craziness during carnaval and have realised it is all a fun festival, to make merry and to enjoy with your friends and family.
One gets to see beautiful decorations all over the city with the Carnaval colours of Den Bosch. These colours are yellow, white and red. The Oeteldonk’s tricolour flag comes started in the beginning of the 20th century. The white and the yellow colours are taken from the Church and the red and white is from the Brabant’s flag. Red is symbolic for love.  There are banners put up all over the city and there is a lot of publicity on social media telling people about the Carnaval events all over the city.
People are more relaxed that usual, the schools are closed during carnival for a week and the die hard carnaval fans take days off from their work. As a person who thoroughly enjoys the carnaval celebration, this year I decided to put down my experiences in an article. My husband and I, generally take part in the festivities for a day or two, however this year it was a different story. As the story unfolds, you will see how and why it was an extended celebration for more than 2 days……….
Day 1: 9 Feb, 2 days before the official Carnival Celebration day.
I was walking back to the Den Bosch station with a friend and we saw the carnival revellers all dressed up in colourful costumes and the boerenkiel and boy it was exciting! The buzz, the vibe, the atmosphere was something one gets a high by just seeing!
And this time one does not even have to go to a coffee shop to get high! The ones who did take part in this frenzy, made merry and were celebrating life and being with friends. They enjoy and cherish the tradition, which is passed on from one generation to another. Many of the people fix the carnaval date like a year in advance and some of them see each other every year like an annual re-union.
I saw happy faces of friends meeting one another. I spoke to one of the travellers’ at the station while I was waiting for my bus and asked him if he was here for the carnaval. He was waiting for a friend and they were going to Breda to experience the carnaval. Breda is another city in North Brabant and the carnaval there is also quite an experience.
After Breda, they were going to come back to Den Bosch as he felt it was the best carnaval of all places! I assume he was from Den Bosch as I could see the pride in his eyes for his city. My first day of Oeteldonk’s carnaval was a feeling of warmth despite the cold on a wintery day, serenity in a very noisy environment and fascination despite my 14th year of living in the Netherlands. The expression of my face is like that of a child who is seeing the Disney world for the very first time in his or her life! And as a child’s excitement lasts for days and possibly weeks to come by, this evening’s vibe was going to continue for the next few days to come by.
Day 2: 11 Feb, officially the first day of Carnaval
This was yet another interesting day and we met many people from different nationalities and it was very nice to meet them and I felt quite at home even though I had met them for the first time! They were a bunch of sweet and warm expats who were working in the Netherlands. These expats were from India, Italy, Hungry, Germany and a Dutch girl as well amongst them.
We soaked in the carnival atmosphere and most of them were here for a year or lesser, so relatively new to the country but had adjusted well and knew their way around in the city too. This took me back to my initial years in the Netherlands, when we were living close to the city and I would explore the city with my friends who were also from different countries.
Meeting some people from my own birth country India, felt very nice and warm. I felt at home. I had the chance to speak my own language, which is Hindi and exchange familiar stories and anecdotes of India. Coming back to the carnaval story, it was time to go home as it was evening and we were getting a bit tired as well.
So we took the bus to go home, as drinking and driving is a total no! Many people take the public transport during Carnaval and the buses are at times jam-packed. While going home, a co-passenger was in a very jovial mood and offered us oude jenever (a strong alocoholic drink- something like Gin) and he insisted we try it as he felt it was better than the nieuwe jenever and boy it was good. He mentioned that his friends in Scotland would always ask him to get at least 3-4 bottles of the Dutch Jenever. Apparently the Gin originates from the word Je-ne-ver. That was an interesting anecdote and we got to taste the story too so to say! It is such a pleasant change to see people more relaxed and when they are relaxed, they also speak more freely and one gets to hear interesting stories.
Day 3: 12 February, the second day of Carnaval
This day is welcomed by an exuberant happening called the “ Optocht “ or the parade as many people know it. This is personally my favourite along side some dancing. The optocht is a culmination of different kinds of tabloids and caricatures relating to the current happenings in the Dutch society. It is a vibrant colourful parade, which travels through the streets of Den Bosch, showcasing political topics amongst other funny crazy things. It involves creating beautiful tabloids, costumes, props and also getting people to enact and perform.
This time the tabloids were huge and considering the city roads are very narrow, the tabloids were so up close and personal that one could touch them. Even though it was tempting to touch the moving tabloids, one needed to be careful not to injure oneself. The optocht personnel checked the crowds regularly, to see they did not get too close, which is good as there are a lot of kids around.
We stood next to the Sint. Jan’s Catherdral and actually felt I was back in history, as the folk standing and watching the big parade passing by…. In the streets of Den Bosch! I wonder if this was the case in the past as well? There were two old ladies standing in front of us in the bitter cold and they had come to see the optocht. I admired their enthusiasm and guts to come and stand for close to 2 hours in the cold to see the parade. The organizers generally start working on the parade nearly a year in advance. The tradition is passed on from generations from family to family or from one organisation to another. This is very special that the Brabant community is doing to preserve their culture. I have a huge amount of respect for all the people who take part in the parade and entertain the audience!
Do you know these participants keep themselves warm in the bitter cold? Hmmmm…. let me enlighten you…. they have loads and loads of beer and the Dutch Gin called jenever or just some alcohol. The parade goes on for about 2 hours. After that people walk around the city to hunt for their next pub destination or just walk around to soak in the atmosphere. We stayed on until evening and went back, as it was getting very cold and yet again it was time to go home.
Day 4: 13 February, officially the last day of Carnaval.
This came as a surprise as I was not going to celebrate carnival on the last day, as I was a bit tired and hoping to rest and recover. However a friend of mine from Eindhoven had never experienced the Oeteldonk carnival and she insisted we meet in Den Bosch. I gave it a thought and said why not? An immense sense of pride came in, as I wanted to show her my very pretty cultural city of Den Bosch during carnaval.
We walked around and to my surprise we saw the children’s parade, which was very cute. I experienced this for the first time. Children of all ages from really young ones aged 4-5 years to teenagers pulled off an entire parade. There were games to play and crazily dressed up adults and colour everywhere. The plan was to eat lunch together, but of course all the restaurants were closed due to carnival. So we went to the square close to Sint. Jan’s Cathedral and grabbed a bite there under the bright shining sun!
Later on we went to Korte Put Straat, which is a very beautiful quaintly lit up cobbled street laced with restaurants offering different cuisines on either sides. On that day, this street was completely transformed into a party scene with people dancing at music played by DJ’s. Each of the restaurant had it’s own bar with a window facing the street and people could help the restaurant’s sales by buying abundant beer, wine and water for the healthy people. Some of the DJ’s were playing trance, some others played Dutch carnaval music and we also heard songs from Grease!
So all-in all it was a very vibrant and hyper energetic environment. People were dressed in the craziest and the funkiest of costumes and that was an absolute treat to our eyes! We then walked to the city and soaked in all the craziness, the music, the buzz of the people and the beautiful sunshine!
My carnaval celebration was coming to an end and boy I enjoyed it so much this year. I experienced this year’s Oeteldonk with some old friends and met some new people. With some of them, I still have contact. On an ending note, I would really suggest people to experience Carnaval with an open mind and see how crazy the Dutch can get and see a different side of Brabant’s culture!
Last but not the least, I feel blessed that I could be a part of this beautiful Brabant cultural experience and I have really enjoyed writing my experiences. And I really do hope you have enjoyed reading it as well! I would like to thank you all for taking out time to read my article!
Netherlands map with provinces:
People in the pictures:
Ronald Vermeulen, Harsh Sheth, Anurag Kashyap Sud, Rieneke Berm, Luca Allen, Tibor & Martin, Michelle Anand, Tarirai Mandoreba