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Carnival in Maastricht

April 9, 2009

by Claire Moncla

Claire Moncla, a professional writing major in the College of Arts and Sciences, participated in the Baylor in Maastricht study abroad program. Her essay below is one in a four-part series chronicling her experience in the program.

A man beating a big bass drum in a parade stops at a large square and takes a sip from a beer set in a cup holder atop his drum. Finishing his drink, he looks at a van parked illegally in the square. Without pause, he reaches into his coat and pulls out a pad and pen, writes something, rips off the sheet and places it on the van's windshield.

Only during Carnival in Maastricht, The Netherlands, would a policeman drum in a public parade, drink beer and hand out a traffic ticket in succession.

In Maastricht, Carnival is about the only time during the year that looking completely ridiculous is socially accepted. Dutch citizens don face paint, fake eyelashes, wigs, fuzzy top hats, neon-colored clothing and various themed costumes, or "pekske" to celebrate their pre-Lent celebrations. The streets and main squares are covered in the Carnival colors red, yellow and green and are full of participants dancing, making music, drinking and eating.

Carnival is celebrated in ways unlike any holiday in America, yet the themes behind this Dutch festival bear resemblance to academic holidays like spring break or regional celebrations such as Mardi Gras in Louisiana.

The Carnival calendar begins six weeks before Easter, and this year the first day fell on Saturday February 21, 2009. At 1:11 p.m. the Carnival Prince arrived at the Central Railway Station. At 1:55 p.m. there was a parade between the railway station and city hall. When the prince reached the market square where city hall is located, he climbed to the top of a statue depicting an old woman and placed a wreath of vegetables around her neck.

On Sunday the 22nd at 12:11 p.m., 11 gunshots fired on the "Vrijthof," the main square, officially starting Carnival. Afterwards a huge parade with floats and bands took place in the city center for several hours. After the parade, celebration of Carnival spread to streets and pubs around the city center until 3 a.m.

On Monday there was a children's parade in the afternoon and regular Carnival celebrations lasted until 3 a.m.

Tuesday was the last day of Carnival. This day saw a contest for Carnival bands in which each received a first place award after a costume contest for the children. At11:55 p.m., Carnival was declared officially over, but the pubs stayed open until 2 a.m.

On Wednesday, the people mourn the end of Carnival and, according to tradition, eat herring and drink more beer.

Although the chronology and practice of Carnival seems haphazard, many elements of Carnival have historical and cultural significance.

"Each (Dutch) city has a group that organizes Carnival," Isabella Strauch, University of Maastricht Center for European Studies secretary and coordinator of introduction programs, said. This group is called the Council of Eleven and is also involved in choosing the Carnival Prince. The number 11 holds importance in Dutch culture. "Eleven was a perfect number in Medieval times," Alexander Nies, a Dutch native and CES intern, explained. "A lot of councils in Medieval times had 11wise men."

The number 11 is also the word "elf" in Dutch and German. This word is linked to the word "alfen" which means the ghosts of ancestors. Nies said that the tradition of starting Carnival events at times that include the number 11, such as the Carnival Prince's arrival on Saturday at 1:11 p.m., is in respect both to ancestors and the number itself.

The tradition of wearing crazy costumes during Carnival stems from an older practice of "scaring off ghosts," Nies said. Yet he explained that the costumes are to frighten bad ghosts and not the ghosts of ancestors.

The statue of the old woman, or the "Moos wief" in Dutch, in the market also has historical significance. "She was a fisherman's wife from the 1500s," Nies said. "'Moos wief' is literally translated 'the vegetable woman.'" The Carnival Prince puts a wreath around her neck to acknowledge the vegetable market that has always been in that square and the people who worked there.

Another fun tradition in Maastricht's Carnival is the music. People constantly sang, pubs blared traditional Dutch folk songs, and bands played music during Carnival. Nies said that each year the Carnival prince makes up a new song and distributes it among the people who in turn sing it during the four days of Carnival celebrations. Carnival music is just for fun. "They are really silly songs," Strauch said.

Maastricht's Carnival traditions hold several themes in common with spring break and Mardi Gras. Carnival is a festival that traditionally celebrates the time before Lent. Participants want to enjoy themselves as much as possible before they must go through 40 days of self-deprivation. Louisianans celebrate Mardi Gras for the same reasons. Mardi Gras, which means "fat Tuesday" in French, is celebrated each year on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, a day of repentance and the beginning of Lent. There are parades in each city and people on floats throw out purple, green and gold beaded necklaces. Mardi Gras is basically a calmer, smaller version of Maastricht's Carnival.

Students also respond to spring break in the same way Maastricht inhabitants respond to Carnival. It's a brief respite each year; a time for celebration and fun with friends and family. The whole city pauses for four days during Carnival. The shops all close and the houses and streets away from the city center are vacated. Everyone gets a rest. During Carnival, the streets outside of Maastricht's city center feel very much like a university campus during spring break. They are empty just like a university campus is empty until the return of students from their spring break festivities.

Baylor students in the midst of Lent and spring break can learn from the example put forth in Maastricht's Carnival. Carnival is about enjoying life, but not in a selfish, reckless sense. It is a family event. "All the people here love Carnival," Nies said. "They think children should be involved in it." The Dutch want to make sure the entire family unit enjoys the festivities. Baylor students should remember to seize the day and take a break, truly enjoying the things that matter in life: friends and family.

Read Claire's other essays on her time in Europe:

Sunday Mass in the Notre Dame Cathedral
By spending time in one of the world’s most famous churches, Claire offers insight on where church really is.

Bonnefanten: The Building That Connects Past With Present
At once remaining silent and speaking volumes, the Bonnefanten building has been witness to history and transformation.

Dunmore East
No gift shop, no t-shirt, and no fancy souvenirs here. Ireland’s Dunmore East offers a landscape of captivating beauty and peace.