For approximately two weeks leading up to Sunday, February 19th, this is the question I was repeatedly asked. Sunday the 19th through Tuesday the 21st marked the official dates of the Carnival (or Carnaval — I’m still not sure which is the correct spelling, since I’ve seen them both used interchangeably) before Ash Wednesday.
Here’s what I knew about Carnival before it started:
1. Basically everyone dresses up in some kind of costume, whether it’s just a mask or a full-blown outfit.
2. Carnival is celebrated most in the southern part of The Netherlands, which is where I’m located.
3. Because of this, classes would be cancelled for one week in order to celebrate.
Going into Carnival with this knowledge did not fully prepare me for what I like to call the “Carnival Experience”. When I first arrived to the Vrijthof, which is the heart of Maastricht– and also where the main festivities were going to be taking place– I was confused. Although there were people there, and they were in costume, the Vrijthof seemed fairly empty compared to what I was expecting. It seemed like people were constantly saying that this was such a big deal, yet it wasn’t much more crowded than it would be on a normal weekend.
While we were waiting for the parade to come, there were sporadic hailstorms, and then, in the blink of an eye, the Vrijthof was extremely crowded! Allow me to put it in perspective for you. A street that would normally take about one or two minutes to walk down took 10-15 minutes. This part of the experience is what I’d like to call organized chaos. Everyone was having a good time and trying to get to their next destination within the Vrijthof, but it could have been perceived as chaotic from someone who was completely unprepared. My friends and I, however, did what the locals were doing; made a little train by putting our hands on each others’ shoulders and moved through the crowd.
Below is a picture where you can see some people in costume unsheltered during the first hailstorm.
The parade arrived just as the last hailstorm took its leave. There were bands and of course everyone was wearing a unique costume! The parade was interactive; the people on the floats saying “hip hip!” and the crowd responding “hooray!” (all in Dutch of course). My friends and I had a really nice time.
After the parade was over, it was time for food! One of my friends and I decided to be brave and try Herring, which historically was the traditional food eaten on Ash Wednesday. Even though it wasn’t Ash Wednesday, we ate it anyway.
This fish was probably the largest piece of fish served to one person that I’d ever seen in my entire life, and it was absolutely amazing! The picture doesn’t do it justice, but it really was a large piece of fish. After we were fed, it was time to explore and see the costumes. The Carnival colors for Maastricht (located in the southern province of Limburg) are green, yellow, and red, so that tended to be a common color scheme, especially amongst the older generations. I was one of the exceptions. I realized that I may not have the opportunity to experience Carnival again, so I decided to “dress-up” with some of Limburg’s colors.
I bought a cheap purple costume dress, because purple is my favorite color, and accessorized with Limburg’s Carnival colors! I was surprised to get so many compliments; I felt Dutch 🙂 As the day went on, more and more people kept showing up, including people of all ages (including little children whose parents had dressed them and/or their strollers up in order to celebrate). As I mentioned earlier, Carnival is a three-day event, and people did not stop wearing costumes and celebrating at any point during those three days. It was quite impressive that it was still going strong on day three! I suppose when you plan and wait for months for Carnival, you’re going to enjoy every minute of it.