Below the rivers
Apart from the border between Friesland and the rest of The Netherlands, there`s another dividing line that crosses The Netherlands. The `big rivers` separate the traditionally catholic provinces Noord-Brabant and Zuid-Limburg in the South from the protestant ones in the North. Over the last 40 years, the influence of both religions has decreased, but differences remain. The three-day celebration of Carnival is one of the ways for the southern provinces to honour their distinctively different mentality.
The carnival tradition dates back from the time when religion played a more prominent role in the Catholic provinces. Still today, Carnival is organised 40 days before Easter. During the period between Carnival and Easter, people used observe the fast. With time passing, only the fun part of the tradition survived. Less fasting, more partying.
`People from the North of the country have a hard time understanding our Carnival traditions`
Back until the 1950s, Catholicism was not much more than a tolerated religion, while the royal family and most of the leaders of the country were protestant. Celebrating carnival at the time was not always allowed, and it served as a convenient excuse for rebelling against the protestant authorities north of the rivers. It is possibly for this reason that Carnival is celebrated according to many different ways in many different places, following oftentimes strict patterns that outsiders may not be aware of. During Carnival, everybody who is not from the city or village itself is allowed to be called `foreigner`.
Foreigners are not hard to recognise. Protocols in different cities prescribe different dress codes, and many Carnival particularities may also be different from one place to another. People in Maastricht disguise themselves by painting their faces, while people in Den Bosch simply change the order of many things. The mayor will be wearing a farmer`s uniform during Carnival, while the farmers will show up in smart dress.
Despite the differences, some characteristics exceed city borders and apply to the entire tradition. Every community kicks of the Carnival season on 11 November at 11h11, a solid four months before the actual celebrations take place. `11` being considered the crazy number, the eleventh minute of the hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month is recognised as the best moment to select Prince Carnival, who be responsible for managing the city during the three days celebration.
Between November and spring, members of dedicated carnival organisation strengthen their activities in fund raising, start constructing carriages for the processions. Carnival dignitaries, united in the men-only Council of Eleven, are responsible for practical matters. They meet frequently to discuss which arrangements need to be made with the normal city council, pub owners, police forces and all others involved. On the first day of Carnival, the mayor of the city or village hands the key to Prince Carnival, who will manage the city for the entire three-day period. During his reign, the locality changes names. Den Bosch becomes Den Bosch into Oeteldonk, Eindhoven into Lampegat (Lightbulb-hole) and Tilburg into the City of Hot Water bottle pissers.
Although Carnival is not recognised as an official holiday, many people in the South arrange for one or more days off. Schools and universities close for Carnival holidays. In the North, the Crocus Holiday was inaugurated to keep things even. Nowadays, Carnival holidays and Crocus holidays usually don`t coincide. The practice of vakantiespreiding, staggered holidays, implied that holidays in the North, Centre and South of The Netherlands do not follow the exact same scheme. Summer holidays may start one or two weeks earlier in one region than in another ? a measure taken to prevent traffic jams and avoid that society comes to a standstill during school holidays.
`People who do not want to take part in the celebrations have no reason to visit the South during Carnival`, say Wouter (17) and Jan (24). `Those who live north of the rivers would be advised stay there, and the very few people below the rivers who don`t share the Carnival fever leave op wintersport, to the Alps to go skiing or snowboarding.` Jan continues that everybody is welcome to share in the festivities, `but there is really nothing to do for people who don`t like the atmosphere. Shops are closed, there`s nothing else to do but to participate in the celebrations.`
Pim (22) is originally from Brabant but has not returned for Carnival over the last few years: `Most of what I remember dates back from my childhood years, but now that we talk about it, I should test it again.`
Stephanie (28, photo) explains that processions of decorated carriages form the core of the event, which for the rest is surrounded by drinking and socialising. `I usually spend one day celebrating in Maastricht, which I consider the true heart of Dutch Carnival. The other two days, I will spend visiting friends in Den Bosch. Many people travel to their native city or village for Carnival, or to the place where they are studying or did study in the past. Dutch Carnival has little to do with German or Belgian Carnival, it`s just an event on its own. It`s not even an activity, it`s more of a feeling. You have to experience it to know what you`re talking about. There is no other way. People from the North have a hard time understanding what they may perceive as some random partying with no specific purpose. For them it`s just Brabo`s and Limbo`s turning the South of The Netherlands into a random mess.`
Twan (27) says: `The closer you get to Belgium, the more exciting the celebrations are. Many students take the three days of Carnival for one day ? meaning: they start on Sunday and make it straight through to Tuesday without interruption. They may change clothes if they see a chance, but the event itself just goes on. With all this alcohol flowing freely, and people caring less about morally acceptable behaviour, Carnival breaks about as many relations as it creates new ones. And it`s one of the most likely events at which you will see your parents drunk.`
Although Carnival probably marks the most obvious differences between the North and South, both sides of the big rivers also have a different accent in Dutch. People from the Limburg province are very hard to understand for people from the rest of The Netherlands, while Brabants is a more gentle variation of Dutch.
Twan explains that many young people leave for the Randstad agglomeration to find a job: `Their accent, especially their soft G is often regarded as retarded, which causes many Southerners to adapt their accent when they plan to stay in the North for an extended period of time. More so than people from the North leaving for the South. Also, a typical Brabant Houdoe-goodbye often reveals the origin of the person issuing the greeting.`
Seen from the South, people from the North are quite impolite and less hierarchical. They may be called `farmers`. The stronger their accent, the lower the perceived intelligence of the person, especially in Amsterdam.`
Fortunately, the South has quite some sources of pride that make a nice trade-off against the economically dominant North. Football club PSV Eindhoven, comedian Theo Maassen, truck manufacturer DAF, musicians like VOF de Kunst and Guus Meeuwis also add to our regional price. Unfortunately, many companies and instutions are moving operations to more prestigious cities. Electronics giant Philips is one out of very many examples of how sources of regional pride are slowly disappearing or moving away. With Carnival as a nice folkloristic exception. For at least these three days of the year, the South is still really, really different from the North.
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