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The basics
THE Netherlands: Once you arrive

Dutch Carnival

Discover Dutch culture through the age-old tradition of Carnival

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For four days a year, the picturesque, quaint cities in the south of Holland become blurs of sound, shouts and colour. Drawn from religious tradition, Dutch Carnival marks a four day break from everyday life to drink, dance and be generally merry before the traditional period of fasting before Easter. Whether an international student or simply curious, there has seldom been a better excuse to embrace Dutch culture.


What is Carnival?

Traditionally a pagan celebration by the Christian Church, Carnival marks the three days leading up to Ash Wednesday, signalling the beginning of Lent and the subsequent period of fasting. It is mainly celebrated in regions of Holland that are predominantly Catholic, across cities such as Maastricht, Den Bosch, Breda and Eindhoven. Each city has a different events schedule, but are all based upon the same cultural lore.


Historically, Christians in mediaeval Holland took Carnival as their last chance to eat luxuries such as meat, drink, and enjoy themselves prior to the forty days of fasting during Lent. Origins of Carnival in its modern state date back to just after World War II, where the tradition was resurrected by Southern provinces.


Carnival season officially begins on the 11th day of the 11th month at 11 minutes past 11, where the year’s Carnival Prince is sworn in. Nestled between culturally significant numbers 10 and 12, 11 is considered ‘the fool’s number,’ and so is considered specifically relevant for Carnival.


On the Sunday seven weeks before Easter, the major of a participating city symbolically hands over its keys to the newly-elected prince, who then beneath his ‘reign’ incites a four-day marathon of general tomfoolery.


Citizens in this temporary ‘Kingdom of Fools’ dress in outlandish costumes (often in masquerade), eat, drink, dance and enjoy a number of events and parades specific to each participating city. Festivities often involve street floats and parades that poke good-natured fun at authorities and social conventions. At midnight on the following Tuesday, there is a ritualistic goodbye ceremony in which Carnival mascots and symbols are drowned, burned and buried.


What’s on?

Each city that celebrates Carnival has a different rota of events and celebrations. All, however, are variations of dressing up wildly and partying in the streets. For example, students at the Eindhoven University of Technology can take a break from their studies and follow the parade snake through the inner city, starting from the central train station at 1:11pm on the dot.


It’s not compulsory you dress up to enjoy the festivities, but as the whole idea behind the celebration is to lose your inhibitions before the coming period of solemnity, it would be argued that you aren’t experiencing it properly if you don’t.


There are really no rules or set ways to experience Carnival properly. With constant music, food, drink and colour all around you, it’s really up to you where the day leads. 


When and Where

Carnival is mainly celebrated in the southern provinces of Holland, with official festivities kicking off on either March 1st or 2nd depending on the city. Events run all day and night with featured musical acts and performances throughout the four days. Things officially close at midnight on Tuesday, March 4.


Click here for a full event guide


Now that you’re more acquainted with Dutch culture, why not start browsing courses in the Netherlands now and go discover it for yourself?


Useful Links

Cultural misconceptions about the Netherlands

Student living costs in the Netherlands