I have to admit: I have a weakness for celebrations, especially ones with a fascinating history. Ever since moving to the Netherlands, I’ve been curious about carnival. These are my tips for attending carnival in the Netherlands for the first time.
I headed down to Breda (known as Kielegat during carnaval) to celebrate carnival in Brabant! This post will be about the history of Dutch carnival, Dutch carnival traditions, and what to know before celebrating Carnaval in Nederland.
The history of carnival in the Netherlands
Historically, carnival was a large feast held during Pagan times prior to the last bit of winter prior to fasting and reduced portions. In the Netherlands, vastenavond (fasting evening) was when remaining lard, butter, and meat would be consumed.
Catholicism incorporated these pagan rituals into their faith after struggling with excesses that occurred during February. Carnaval was officially allowed into Christianity in 1091 prior to Lent beginning. (Bear with me here, the fun stuff comes later!)
As early as 1383, stage performances, jousting, costumes, gambling, and cockfights were occurring in the Netherlands during this time. Carnival in the Netherlands served a significant role in allowing the citizens to speak out against wealth, nobility, and religion.
With the schism in the Catholic church and Protestantism, carnival became less popular to the degree that Den Bosch and other cities in North Brabant stopped having carnival in the South of the Netherlands in the 1600s. It still remained celebrated on a smaller scale with feasts and effigies. Towards the beginning of 1800s, sentiment changed and carnival revived itself under French rule and with the influence of Italian/Cologne carnival.
Modern day carnival in the Netherlands, as we know it today, actually dates back to 1950 when it became less tied to Catholicism although it is most popular in regions that are historically Catholic (North Brabant and Limburg). Today, carnival is more about social criticism, mocking, and inverting social mores than religion.
As a result of the influences of different groups, you’ll find two kinds of carnival: Rhenish (with influences from German carnival) and Burgundian carnival. This article is about Burgundian carnival in the Netherlands, which stems from the Catholic traditions.
Some of the carnival traditions in Brabant and Limburg
Wearing a costume is required. Your costume is open and it’s possible to switch genders (if you choose). That said, most people choose to buy a store-bought costume although you’ll see a lot of creative homemade costumes, some with cheeky political references. Don’t come without a costume. (More about costumes later!)
The Prince of Carnival receives the key to the city. This is a key part of the Dutch carnival tradition with historical roots. As soon as the Prince receives the key, Carnival can begin. 😉
Check for the timing of Carnival parades in each of the respective cities that celebrate in Carnival, however it’s traditional to have a parade of floats and one float with the Prince of Carnival. Click to see the parade from Kielegat with some festive music.
Carnival music is something unique to say the least. It’s probably better if you don’t know Dutch as Carnival music is often offensive/dirty, but funny. Each city typically has a song that is written to a popular song and/or a slightly off beat. You can listen to a popular number from Carnaval in Kielegat (Breda) from last year that will set the bar for what you’ll be hearing throughout the streets and at bars.
Most cities that celebrate Carnival change name. For instance, Breda becomes Kielegat (a mouthful for non-Dutchies) and Den Bosch becomes Oeteldonk. When we arrived at Breda Centraal for carnival, we were welcomed into Kielegat Centraal instead!
When and where Dutch carnival is celebrated
Dutch carnival is celebrated in February (ish). The dates change early depending on Lent, so check the dates ahead! The best places to celebrate Carnival as a foreigner (according to Dutchies that I’ve met) are in Den Bosch, Breda, Eindhoven, Tilburg, and Maastricht. You’ll find smaller carnival celebrations in other cities across the south of the Netherlands.
I’ve heard that it’s best to stick to the bigger cities if you don’t know people in these cities. I write this as Carnival is a time when a lot of people who live elsewhere return and it’s often a way to catch up with people that you haven’t seen in a while. If your goal is to partake in the traditions, stick to the bigger cities where you’ll have more people from outside the region coming to celebrate.
What to know before celebrating carnival in the Netherlands
Embrace Carnival in its craziness and bring your crew!
This is simple, but you need to just enjoy Carnival. Don’t be self-conscious about dancing in the streets. Everyone is celebrating and I found people to be ridiculously friendly to strangers.
Most people are in groups of 4 (or more) for some reason that I don’t know. You can definitely attend with your significant other, but I think that it’s more fun with a group of friends. (I went with a group of six myself).
You MUST wear a costume for Carnival in the Netherlands
I love dressing up for any occasion, so this was easy for me, however one of my husband’s colleagues apparently came without a costume and felt very uncomfortable. Everyone is in costume and most people put quite a bit of effort in.
That said, if you throw on a Penguin suit or a festive onesie over your clothes, you’ll be fine. However, I’d recommend embracing the costumes and/or wearing your least matching outfit. Just make sure it’s warm and/or layer up!
You can drink in the streets, but the best music may be inside
A bottle of Schrobbeler, a traditional drink from Brabant, is a popular drink that people bring, so expect it to be offered to you if you’re coming with a group where someone is from Brabant. Most bars do not allow you to bring your own beer in, however you can check bags for a small fee outside of bars.
We ended up finishing off most of our beer prior to entering the bars as we weren’t keen on wasting it. It depends on the city, however in Kielegat, the best music and celebrations were inside. It’s best to bring a backpack or a bag that can be easily checked.
Bring a little cash for the bathroom
Almost every single bar in Breda that we visited had someone monitoring the bathrooms to ensure that they stayed clean. Bathrooms typically cost 50 cents to one euro, so be sure to have a little extra cash on you as you’ll probably need a bathroom at some point.
None of them allowed me to pay with a card… At more lowkey locations, this might be not an issue, but in the city centers where Carnival is taking place, it’s good to remember this!
If you don’t have a Dutch Maestro card, take cash out
In Breda, they made it so that there was no cash being exchanged inside of the bars within the center for drinks. Instead, you got tokens and those tokens could be used to purchase drinks inside of the bar. The drinks were standard fare for bars although if you’re with a group, it’s worthwhile to split one of the higher value.
In other cities and smaller towns where Carnival is celebrated in the Netherlands, it may not be organized this way. If you don’t have a Dutch Maestro card, it’s unlikely that most of the bars will accept credit cards, so take out cash for your drinks and/or tokens.
Get there early and get stamped if you leave a bar
This is important as the bars fill up considerably during Carnival… Earlier in the night, bars may not charge covers although some private parties may require tickets. That said, as they fill up, they may ask for cover. If you have your eye on one bar in particular, I recommend getting there early prior to getting a stamp in case you decide to leave.
Some bars may stop letting people inside once they reach capacity, so if you decide to leave, you can typically come back if you have a stamp. In my case, a friend went out to the main street to get more tokens (for drinks) and after he took too long to return, a few of us left the bar to look for him. Not having a stamp meant that I was forced to pay cover to re-enter the bar.
If you want to stay in a Carnival city, book ahead
There’s not that much accommodation during Carnival available as it’s a popular time to visit the South of the Netherlands. Noise might be an issue in the city center, so read the reviews carefully before booking a place in the city center (or ensure that it’s soundproofed). We were going to stay in Breda, but accommodation got too expensive for us.
What to wear for carnival
Half the fun of carnival is coming up with a creative outfit. I ended up spending a while strategizing my outfit, only to realize that it was unrealistic with the cold February weather that we’d encounter.
In lieu of making my own costume, my husband and I headed to Primark and ended up browsing the adult onesies clearance section.I was a festive pineapple while my husband was a caterpillar. Our 5€ euro onesies were perfect for staying warm and comfortable.(I also got to high-five my costume twins!)
I’d recommend planning on wearing something comfortable and warm. I saw a lot of women in sexier costumes, but it’s easy to make your own costume. A popular DIY costume was a leopard, which involved a leopard print coat and ears. Easy, right? (Don’t obsess over your costume too much!) For men, I recommend something dashing like a Pirate costume!
I had a blast and I’ll be back to celebrate carnival in Brabant next year. Maybe Den Bosch this time. 😉