Every year, in February or March, for three days, many towns in the southern part of the Netherlands are packed with people, dressed in all manners of strange costumes, while brass bands perform through the town streets and enough beer is brought in to float the country. The origins of carnival (carnaval in Dutch) are the same as in Rio de Janeiro. 40 days before Easter, the time of Lent in the Christian calendar, people enjoy a period of excess before the self-imposed deprivation of Lent. Each town has its own traditions and these vary greatly. This is how it goes in Den Bosch… an expat’s explanation of events.
Den Bosch is renamed, during carnival, to Oeteldonk – translated, this means Frog’s Town, which does explain why most people’s costumes are covered in badges, soft toys and pictures of frogs.
Choosing the Carnival Song
This is how it works. Way back in November, the Carnival Song is chosen, apparently by a crack team of 11 music experts – you have to hear the songs to understand how unbelievable this is. The bands ‘audition’ through the streets of the city all day long (all day long!): a friend, visiting after a holiday in New York, wanted to go back for some peace and quiet!
People follow the bands with beer glasses in hand and generally a party atmosphere descends on the city.
The Real Thing
This is just a warm-up for the real thing. Carnival officially starts on a Sunday (in February or March) with the arrival of the Carnival Prince at 11:11 A.M. precisely – at the train station. He is greeted by thousands of people who then follow the Prince to the Town Hall. The route to the Town Hall takes in most of the streets of Den Bosch and lasts approximately 1.5 to 2 hours. The Prince then watches the parade of performances and bands as they walk past him on the steps of the Town Hall. A prize is awarded for the best costume of best act.
Knellis the Farmer
When everyone is assembled into the Market Square next to the Town hall, the Prince officially opens the carnival festivities. This is done by the unveiling of a huge statue of ‘Knellis the Farmer’, a doll dressed in traditional farmer’s clothes. He is a symbol of authority and his duty is to keep a watchful eye on the proceedings. But we think he must turn a blind eye to most of it. Apparently, every five years, Knellis is joined by a statue of his wife – what she does the rest of the time is a mystery!
After this, everyone follows the bands as they parade through the streets and in out of the man bars and restaurants. Great merriment is had by all, as well as huge quantities of beer.
On Monday, there is the grand parade of decorated wagons (floats) that drive through the town, making lots of noise, followed by the bands playing their renditions of well-known tunes (everyone seems to know the words, normally ‘tum, tum, tum, etc.’), followed by hoards of people in costumes, drinking… yes, you guessed it… beer. I hope the theme is showing through now.
Tuesday is a day of great sadness as this is the end of carnival. At 10 A.M., there is a parade for the children and more prizes are awarded for best costume, while tranquilizers are handed out to their long-suffering mothers. The day is spent like all the others, drinking, following the bands, singing, drinking, etc.
Then, at 12 midnight, everyone gathers in the Market Square (everyone being 10,000 to 15,000 people) to witness the taking down of Knellis the Farmer. He is to be ‘buried’, so he is put onto a farmer’s truck and taken from the square. This sight is greeted with much crying and wailing from the assembled masses. That’s 15,000 drunk people crying their eyes out!
And that’s the end of carnival for another year. Everyone now goes back to the pubs to drown what is left of their sorrows.
And then Finally… Fish and Brandewijn
Or is it the end? One final ritual remains. Wednesday is fish day, when everyone eats herring and drinks Brandewijn (brandy wine). Apparently, a well-known hang-over cure! My advice; keep away!