Alaaf! It (Carnaval) is on! Around mid-January we started to see red, yellow and green flags appear and then a larger than life picture of the “Prins” on the side of a house. Window decorations came soon after and every weekend there was some sort of party in town. People dressed in red, yellow or green were about and guys with funny looking hats seemed to preside over it all. When we walked through a neighboring town, we saw pictures of princes and princesses in almost every window. 

We guessed that all of this had something to do with Carnaval, but it was mostly a mystery. We knew that red, yellow and green are the colors of the Limburg flag and that Carnaval is a big celebration here. We were clueless about all the rituals involved. 

We’ve learned that each town has one or more carnival associations. Those are the guys with the funny hats. They plan the activities and elect the prince and/or princess. The activities can include pageants, parodies, comedies, music parties and parades. When there is a music event in Oirsbeek, we can hear it from our house and there were several nights when we had to use white noise to get to sleep. 

The climax of Carnaval is the week before Ash Wednesday. Our landlady gave us a bit of information and said that on Thursday night the ladies go out. They cut off men’s ties and shoelaces (I guess to show their rebellion?) if any men are out. The husbands eventually come to get their wives in the wee hours of the morning and take them home. I heard that one nearby town has a cow race on Friday night. People dress up like cows and run a race through the town center. No idea what that’s about! We went to Sittard Friday night for dinner and saw many teenagers in costumes (mostly one piece furry animals or cartoon characters) around market square. There was a youth dance party going on in the square. 

The parades begin on Saturday. There are youth or children parades and then the big parades. It seemed like most of the parades on Saturday were the former and the big parades were either Sunday or Monday. Nearly every village and city in Limburg hosts at least one parade. We decided that we had to experience Carnaval in Maastricht — the biggest celebration in NL. This meant we had to miss the parade in Oirsbeek since it was also on Sunday afternoon. We met up with my work colleague Ioana, who was also experiencing it for the first time. The parade in Maastricht was even bigger than I imagined it would be! It lasted almost three hours — so many colorful people, music and floats. It’s a joyous spectacle and, from our point of view, it was very family and community oriented. It’s not like Mardi Gras in New Orleans. 

A lot of creativity and planning goes into this parade. From what we understand, many of the groups are carnival associations or neighbor groups. The costumes are very elaborate and beautifully coordinated. There’s so much color, sparkle and flair! One of the major themes of carnaval is role reversal so the peasants become royalty, men become women, employees become bosses, etc. It’s also a celebration of the end of winter and pending spring — I think that’s why there is so much color.

In case you were wondering, yes there is also drunken revelry. Beer is the beverage of choice everywhere here and it’s probably consumed in greater quantities during Carnaval than any other time of the year. Many of the groups in the parade had their own beer cart so they could keep their glasses full. We didn’t experience much of this side of the celebration. It was too crowded to go into the center of Maastricht and in Sittard the set up was designed for frequent drinkers. When we went to the square in Oirsbeek on Saturday afternoon, there was a small crowd of people in costume standing around drinking beer and listening to silly carnaval music. It didn’t entice us. It’s not much fun to have a social drink when everyone else around you just wants to get drunk!

Almost every business is closed for the three day weekend. Carnaval Monday is a holiday in Limburg and a lot of the parades are held that day. On Sunday, the only restaurants that we found open were Subway and McDonalds (it’s the American way!). Monday night we decided to take a drive and find a restaurant where we could use coupons that were about expire. NOTHING in southern NL was open. We drove over into Belgium thinking that businesses there wouldn’t be observing carnaval — we were wrong. We managed to find an open Italian pizzeria in a small Belgian town and were surprised to get some delicious pizza served by a very nice couple. We will definitely go back there!

It all winds down on Tuesday with some sort of closing ceremony. There is still much about Carnaval that remains a mystery to us, but we’ve been doing some research and found lots of interesting information on this wikipedia page: Maybe by next year we’ll know more locals and learn more about the nuances of this celebration.