A few weeks ago, clowns started popping out of their hiding places and mounting themselves on building tops, in window seals, and even walking around the streets. Yellow, green, and red flags and balloons whipped in the wind along every road in Maastricht. As the days inched closer to late February and early March, little parades would erupt in the marketplace and people, decked out in colorful costumes and wigs, danced and cheered together in celebration of the European phenomenon that is Carnival.
If you know me, you know I haven’t dressed up for Halloween since third grade, and even then I just threw on my soccer uniform and went as a soccer player. But if you’re going out on the town during Carnival, you’re definitely an outsider if you’re not a furry animal, in a sequin-covered dress and glittery makeup, or in any costume that proves you are someone other than yourself for a night or two. After all, Carnival is all about celebrating the time before Lent—soaking in the splendor of self-indulgence before you say goodbye to it all for a while.
I’ve heard other Americans say that Carnival is like our Halloween and Mardi Gras mixed, but it’s really a festival that can’t compare to either. Whether going all out in dress and drink or just quietly wearing carnival-colored socks, everyone in Maastricht joins in on this celebration that lasts for weeks, unlike Halloween, where candy-hungry children dress up for just one night a year.
When I first saw the clowns make their appearances and the town beginning to transform into a circus-themed party, I researched Carnival and discovered that, as a traditional Roman Catholic festival, Carnival in Limburg (a southern province of the Netherlands), is a huge affair, and it’s especially a big deal in Maastricht. It typically involves a parade, public celebration and street party, and masquerades or costume extravaganzas; the costumes are a way to mark an overturning of one’s daily life, kind of like America’s New Year’s Eve. From Saturday through the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, people show up in the town-square wearing colorful costumes of anything at all or special costumes with Venetian influences (elaborate, gaudy, multi-colored). Of all the creative costumes we saw (and trust me, there are A LOT), my favorite was a set of them worn by a group of friends who’d obviously spent days making them—they were entire outfits made of decks of playing cards taped together with clear mailing tape. That’s when I knew this Carnival thing really means something around here.
And although I wasn’t lucky enough to witness some of the more special parts of Dutch Carnival, like the children’s parade, the parade for the Prince of Carnival, a farmer’s wedding (boerenbruiloft), and the special meal of herring on Ash Wednesday, I still feel like I walked in a Dutchwoman’s shoes (not wooden ones, thank goodness) for a day or two during Carnival. We ventured out into the confetti-covered streets on Saturday night and made our way to the marketplace, where the smell of beer and the sound of Dutch music hung like a canopy over the town-square. There were food stalls serving waffles, frites, fried pudding-filled desserts, and so much more. We walked around in awe of the noises and sights, excited to be experiencing such a vibrant cultural event. As I looked around in admiration of everyone’s elaborate costumes, I almost wished I’d invested in something a little more than just my silly red, yellow, and green outfit. I imagine I’ll have the chance to redeem myself next year, though, when my friends and I throw our own American version of a Carnival party, wishing all the while that we were still at the real thing.