Laughing jester carnival

Carnival: just another party?

Will carnival in the Southern Netherlands be able to stand the test of time?

13 minutes to read
Ruben Bastiaanse

Carnival is running the risk of becoming 'just' another party as the massification and increased societal embededness of the festivities erode the historical function and meaning of carnival. The future of carnival in the Southern Netherlands may very well be at peril.

The carnival-tradition

“[Carnival] is the revelation of life, which is elevated to a highland of joy with accelerated intensity, where all walks of life meet each other and experience their mutual solidarity […] The human sentiment of unity is upheld through festivity.”
(Van Duinkerken 1928, 34-36)[1]

Carnival: a yearly festivity that has enchanted the Southern Netherlands for more than six centuries. Delivered to us from the Middle Ages, tens of thousands of people still live up to the days preceding Ash Wednesday and take these days as an opportunity to escape the straitjacket of the community by loosening its moral codes and holding a mirror up to society.

Nobody would dispute the fact that we are dealing with a tremendously popular festival that throughout the centuries has grown to become part of the immaterial cultural heritage of the Southern Netherlands. After all, carnival constitutes a historical immaterial group of resources that involves a wide variety of customs, rituals and interactions which people identify with and through which they give expression to their local, historical and communally shared culture which encompasses constantly evolving values, beliefs, knowledge and traditions.[2]

The tradition of carnival – like any other tradition – is naturally subject to change. Over the years, it has lost a large degree of its religious character but has nevertheless been able to adapt itself to the needs of the 20th century while retaining its historical raison d’être. Yet the question is whether carnival as we know it now will survive more recent societal developments. In other words, will this tradition persist into the future without losing its important social function?

In this essay I will highlight some threats to the persistence of carnival and the important social function it carries. This of course cannot proceed without having a short look at the history of this peculiar festivity.

What is carnival?

As was mentioned earlier, carnival finds its roots in Medieval times. Although initially a pagan festivity to celebrate the passing of winter and the arrival of spring, the festivities were eventually Christianized to mark the beginning of the period of Lent.[3] The Medieval citizens used the occasion to forget about the trials and tribulations of their daily life and they did so by turning the world upside down: the strict Medieval hierarchies of order were temporarily inverted and the solemn sincerity of the religious moral was intentionally overpassed (Oudenampsen 2013).

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, 1559 ca., Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The Dutch historian Herman Pleij argues that one of the most important functions of disorganizing society by turning it upside down was that it re-affirmed the normal, prevailing order of society (Pleij 1992, 25-31). Carnival carried a strong moral and even pedagogical function. The intentional disorganization of society illustrated what a world without order would amount to: licentiousness and anarchy. Accordingly, holding up this societal mirror had a shock effect and made clear to the citizens that a society could not exist without hierarchy and order – be it religious or worldly – and thus re-affirmed the necessity thereof.

In that regard, carnival works a bit like mother’s day. Every year, father and the children use this occasion to treat mother like gold and to relieve her of her daily tasks. Yet this temporary inversion of roles and the pampering that comes with it, serves to re-affirm the fact that for the remaining 364 days of the year, she is expected to resort to her daily tasks as is custom. In a similar fashion, by allowing the medieval citizens to let off steam, the church made clear that for the remainder of the year, they were expected to toe the line. 

Carnival is about ‘escaping’ into nostalgia; about immersing oneself in the rituals and customs of the local carnival tradition in order to strengthen the sense of local unity.

In spite of unceasing religious and worldly opposition, carnival was celebrated until well into the 16th century in the Southern Netherlands (Pleij 1992). Yet the protestant Reformation – and the catholic response to it – made and end to the carnival festivities.[4] It is only in the late 19th century that we see a gradual return of the festivities but there are no signs that they looked anything like the present-day celebrations of carnival.

‘Modern’ carnival really takes off in the 1930’s and especially after the second World War when the religious and worldly objections to the festivities dwindle (Pleij 1992, 40-44). From that point onwards, carnival spreads throughout the Southern Netherlands and by the 1960’s, every self-respecting city or town has its own carnival association(s). These associations have over the years ‘re-invented’ the tradition of carnival by drawing on the local past.[5]

Carnival in its current form of course no longer serves to escape constriction of the church, and the troubles of modern day citizens are in no way comparable to those faced by their historical counterparts. Nevertheless, carnival still serves as a way to unshackle oneself from the chains of day-to-day life by ridiculing the establishment in order to ultimately – albeit reluctantly – acknowledge the necessity of structure and order (Pleij 1992, 44).

The massiveness of modern-day carnival

From Pleij’s description we can deduce that the unsanctioned mockery and ridiculing of the local authorities is an essential part of the ludic inversion of society.  He argues that this persists into our time (Pleij 1992): visit a parade in a random city or town in the Southern Netherlands and you will see that the mayor and his aldermen are portrayed as the laughing stock of the community. The element of locality is thus of crucial importance to the character of carnival which is why one cannot speak of ‘national’ or ‘provincial’ carnival; there is only ‘local’ carnival.

Yet at the same time we see that carnival is gaining popularity and attracts people from far and wide; people who are unfamiliar with the local trials and tribulations; people who do not speak the local dialect; people who do not understand the local references that are made and therefore miss the significance of the inversion of roles. These people are ‘visitors’ who simply come to enjoy a party like so many others. This empties carnival of its historical function of subverting the local authorities and diminishes its important social meaning of enhancing local solidarity.

Yet the carnivalesque inversions of society are not only dependent on knowing the local disputes, they are – perhaps even more importantly – dependent on the presence of a broadly felt connection between the participants and the historical tradition and identity of the local community. After all, carnival is about ‘escaping’ into nostalgia; about immersing oneself in the rituals and customs of the local carnival tradition in order to strengthen the sense of local unity.

The festivity that was once set on inverting the roles in society must now do so by adapting itself to the rules of the order it wishes to ridicule.

But as a result of the growing popularity of carnival among ‘outsiders’, those who are familiar with the local peculiarities of carnival tend to divert themselves from the festivities. This is something that can for example be seen in my hometown of Bergen op Zoom – or Krabbegat as it’s called during Vastenavend. The traditional Dweilen – the torchbearers of Vastenavend one could say – have over the years come to prefer the traditional Neuzenbal and the Voorvastenavend over the actual four days of carnival (Verpalen 1992, 156-157). In fact, a great many of them even stay home on the Saturday of Vastenavend as it is notorious for the large amount of – ignorant – Rotterdammers.

This diversion makes it so that the ‘outsiders’ do not get in touch with these torchbearers, causing the appearance of a watershed between in- and outsiders. This in itself it not by definition problematic as the character of carnival has to a certain extent always been dependent on the difference between the in- and outgroup. Yet the problem is that this hampers the dissemination of local knowledge which in turn limits the chances of outsiders to become insiders, leading to an even further erosion of carnival’s social function: it lives by virtue of a sense of communal unity and local uniformity.

This erosion becomes all the more problematic when we take into account that the ‘carnival population’ is ageing at an unprecedented pace. Every year we see headlines in local newspapers about carnival organizations struggling to find new and dedicated members in order to prevent these clubs from dying out quietly. So not only do the torchbearers divert themselves, their numbers are also in risk of dropping. As the character of carnival is very much dependent on the presence of a broadly felt connection between the citizens and the historical tradition and identity of the local community, losing this connection as a result of an ageing population is detrimental to the relevance and impact of the festivities. This is another reason as to why carnival runs the risk of becoming ‘just’ another party.[7]

Carnival embedded in society

Throughout the history of carnival and well into the 20th century, carnival was a point of discussion and was criticized by both the worldly and the religious establishments. Their objections dwindled after the Second World War and the citizens, after years of torment, oppression and struggle, seized the opportunity to paint the town red.

By now, carnival has become commonplace and the local governments facilitate and even participate in the festivities. For example, the authorities symbolically hand over the keys of the city to the new authorities, as personified by the Prince and his following. Moreover, local governments – recognizing the cultural and economic capital of the festivities – have increasingly embraced their local versions of carnival as important pieces of immaterial cultural heritage that serve to authenticate the city’s uniqueness and cultural vibrancy to the outside world. In other words, as a result of the societal acceptance of carnival, it has become embedded in society. The worldly and carnivalesque order both have an interest in the success of carnival and therefore cooperate to achieve it.

“The feast is a temporary transfer to the utopian world, it has no utilitarian connotation (as has daily rest and relaxation after working hours). On the contrary, the feast means liberation from all that is utilitarian, practical.”

Yet the side-effect of this increasing embeddedness is that the festivities are increasingly subjected to societal rules of which compliance needs to be enforced: participants are fenced off and certain areas are even completely closed off, the carnival chariots are not allowed to transport people to the parade, the drivers have to be in the possession of a special license, smoking is not allowed in the construction halls, the use of glassware is prohibited, it is forbidden to throw confetti and candy or maximums are defined, the police confiscate attributes and the carnival organizations are responsible for enforcing the ban on smoking and the prohibition of alcohol for youngsters under 18. In addition, we see that society demands from carnival that it adapts its forms of expression to the demands of the discourse of the outside world.

Prince Carnival holding the keys to the city

If we take the historical function of carnival – inverting the roles in society; breaking loose – and its spontaneous character into account, we can see the irony in this development: the festivity that was once set on inverting the roles in society must now do so by adapting itself to the rules of the order it wishes to ridicule. Now I am not saying that these rules have no practical or moral function; they can without a doubt benefit society. Yet they are undeniably at odds with the performative immorality and exaggerated lavishness of carnival. As Mikhail Bakhtin put it:“The feast is a temporary transfer to the utopian world, it has no utilitarian connotation (as has daily rest and relaxation after working hours). On the contrary, the feast means liberation from all that is utilitarian, practical.”
(Bakhtin 1968, 276)

The bottom line here is that carnival has always been a festivity that received its character from opposing the worldly order and replacing it with a utopian one. It is in this that the significance of carnival lies. Yet nowadays we see that these orders overlap. There is no real opposing order anymore: there is no ‘enemy’ and no battle which previously united the carnival celebrators. The opposition between orders on which carnival is based, is fading.

Closing reflections: carnival and cultural identity

In this essay I have highlighted two broad developments that in my opinion threaten the traditional and ‘authentic’ character and function of carnival. I have noticed that I am not the only one who recognizes them.

For example, when in 2014 a provincial party proposed to nominate carnival in North-Brabant for a spot on the national list of immaterial cultural heritage, which is generally seen as a stepping stone for making the UNESCO list, the Brabantse Carnavals Federatie (FCD) forcefully declined. They argued that giving carnival this status would do more harm than good. One of their arguments was that a spot on the list could lead to an increasing interest from tourists, by which the previously discussed massification of carnival would only be reinforced: “we are a local festivity”, the chairman commented. Another was the federation’s fear of embeddedness. In light of the recent outrage surrounding Sinterklaas and the carnival festivities in Aalst, the federation feared that the carnival in North-Brabant would be misunderstood and put under increased scrutiny when nominated.

The sociologist Mark van Ostaijen, who in his spare time is a fervent Tullepetaon [8], also opposes the institutionalization of carnival because he, like me, fears that it would lead to an increasing bureaucratization of the festivities:

“I’m opposed to carnival as cultural heritage according to the international standards of UNESCO. I am worried that this would make for more procedures and regulations. Carnival is organized informally. It has its own vitality. The strength of this vitality should come from actors in the civil society: carnival associations, sport clubs and local entrepreneurs. […] Everyone is involved and works towards the carnival days for many months. Carnival is meant to strengthen social ties. It is also a moment to hold a mirror up to your society. This makes a community stronger and more attached.”

Nearing the end of my plea, this is the point I would like to emphasize once more: carnival functions as one of the most important sources of local, cultural identity in the Southern Netherlands. This is not simply because it has been around for such a long time. In fact, we have seen that the modern tradition of carnival is relatively young. It is because carnival involves a wide variety of customs, rituals and interactions which people identify with and through which they give expression to their local, historical and communally shared culture: “it is evident that for the formation of their identity, people nowadays feel a strong need for these engaging and dense stories and rituals, safe images of the past that represent ‘the good old days’” (Bijsterveld 2009:23).

Given this need, which in our times of increased globalization and the feeling of identity loss as a result of, it is paramount that the tradition of carnival is preserved for future generations. It must keep abreast of the times yet not at the cost of losing its local vivacity. If the local population is unable to recognize itself in the character of the festivities, then carnival would be depraved of its social value and become what outsiders and opponents have always mistakenly thought it encompassed: a mere excuse to carouse around.



[1] All translations from Dutch by the author of this paper

[2] See the definition of cultural heritage as formulated during the Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society (2005): “cultural heritage is a group of resources inherited from the past which people identify, independently of ownership, as a reflection and expression of their constantly evolving values, beliefs, knowledge and traditions. It includes all aspects of the environment resulting from the interaction between people and places through time.” See:

[3] See Pleij (1979, 46-51). Against popular belief, there is no consensus about the meaning or origin of the term ‘carnival’ nor about the frequently used synonyms ‘Vastelavond’ and ‘Vastenavond’. See Fransen & Mattheijssen (2014, 15-17) and Fransen (1982, 13-14).

[4] In his Defense of Carnival, Van Duinkerken argues that Protestantism has undervalued the moral worth of carnival and has dismissed it as a manifestation of degeneracy (Van Duinkerken 1928, 36). See also Fransen & Mattheijssen (2014, 21-24). Carnival’s demise cannot be solely attributed to the Reformation. Fransen (1982, 31-35) also mentions the increasing anonymity in Medieval cities (as a result of urbanization) as an important contributing factor.

[5] The term ‘invented tradition’ comes from Hobsbawn & Ranger (1983, 1), meaning: “a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past.” Pleij (1992, 11) explains that there is no such thing as an organic or continuous carnival tradition in the sense that its (local) peculiarities can be traced back all the way to the Middle Ages. During modern carnival, people vaguely imitate half understood rituals from their presumed ancestors through by which they attribute their ancestry traditions and intentions that overlap with the way in which they envision their local history and identity. Verpalen (1992, 154) characterizes Vastenavend in Bergen op Zoom as an ‘invented tradition’.

[7] See also Fransen & Matheijssen (2014, 232) who speak of the ‘carnivalisation’ of society.

[8] Tullepetoan is the name for the citizens of Roosendaal – Tullepetaonestad – during carnival.



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