[Editor’s Note: The following story is the seventh in the series Bits of the Benelux. This series takes a deep dive into the stories, cultures and traditions found throughout Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany]
CHIEVRES AIR BASE, Belgium – With a new year under way, the Carnival season returns to Europe and the Benelux region.
Celebrated throughout the world, Carnival has an especially strong tradition in European countries and regions with a robust Catholic presence.
According to many interpretations, the word “Carnival” derives from the Latin “Carnem Levare,” which means “remove meat” or “farewell to meat” since it indicated the last banquets held before the Christian fasting season of Lent. This isn’t the only interpretation however, with other potential origins including the Latin word “Carnualia” [English: Games of the peasants] or even “Carrus Navalis” [English: Ships on wheels] after the parade floats used in the celebrations.
Most Carnival celebrations center around the week leading up to Ash Wednesday, the official starting date of Lent. Since the date of Ash Wednesday changes each year, the dates of Carnival likewise differ from year to year and even from one country to another.
In the Netherlands and Germany, the Carnival season, also called the “fifth season,” officially begins on Nov. 11. Locations in these countries hold smaller celebrations throughout the season, culminating in a grand finale right before Lent.
In Belgium, some cities celebrate their version of Carnival after the Lenten season begins. These celebrations, usually called “Laetare” [English: Rejoice] are held the weekend of Laetare Sunday, or the fourth Sunday of Lent.
The celebrations themselves are light-hearted and energetic, with customs centered around dancing, costumes, jokes and traditional food and drink. Many festivities are held outside in the city streets, with public parades where playful and imaginative elements come to life.
While Carnival celebrations are closely aligned with the Christian religious calendar, most places also incorporate local traditions originating from pre-Christian pagan rituals celebrating the end of winter and beginning of spring. These traditions can vary greatly from place to place, giving each city its own unique flair.
If you find yourself in a European city during this period of the year, you will probably get the chance to attend a magnificent Carnival festival and discover the traditions linked to local folklore. Below is a list of some of the most famous celebrations in the Benelux.
[Note: This is not a comprehensive list of all Carnival festivals in the Benelux region. No federal endorsement implied for external links.]
Aalst (link in Dutch, best viewed in Google Chrome for translation) | Feb. 19 to 21
With origins dating back to the Middle Ages, the Aalst Carnival is considered a major symbol of the town’s history and identity. An exuberant and slightly subversive affair, the three-day celebration kicks off with the “Prince Carnival” receiving the key to the city in a ceremony mocking Aalst’s current politicians. Each day of the Carnival has its own flair, with events including an annual broom dance to chase away winter, an “onion throw” from the balcony of the city hall, the ritual burning of a Carnival effigy and a parade of young men dressed as women with corsets, prams and broken umbrellas. The most famous event is the large Carnival parade on Sunday, which draws tens of thousands of spectators each year. The parade contains entries from over 100 local groups, with many floats focusing on mockery of major world events and satirical themes.
Andenne (link in French, best viewed in Google Chrome for translation) | March 19
The “Carnaval des Ours” [English: Carnival of the Bears] celebrates the folklore surrounding Charles Martel, a famous sovereign of the Kingdom of the Franks during the early 700s who was born in Andenne. According to legend, an 8-year-old Martel allegedly killed a bear that was terrorizing the city with his bare hands. During the Carnival, over 2,000 “bears” parade through the city streets alongside the giant bears “Martin,” “Fonzi,” and “Martin II.” Following the procession, the Carnival King and Queen throw 250 vintage bears from the balcony of city hall.
Binche | Feb. 19 to 21
Considered one of Belgium’s most famous Carnival celebrations, the “Carnaval de Binche” was recognized as a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003. The central characters of the celebration are the “Gilles,” brightly costumed performers wearing wax masks and wooden clogs. Up to 1,000 Gilles, who are required to be long-term residents of Binche, participate in the festivities alongside other “fantasy” society characters such as the Arlequin, the Pierrot, and the Peasant. One of the biggest events is the procession starting at 3 p.m. on Shrove Tuesday (Jan. 21), where the characters parade through town and throw oranges to the crowds. Catching one of these oranges is said to bring good luck for the year.
Dinant (link in French, best viewed in Google Chrome for translation) | March 2
A newer celebration, the “Carnaval de Dinant” features a procession of the city’s giants - “Guiguet,” “Cafonnette” and “Cheval Bayard” – through downtown followed by a children’s ball. One of the most fun parts of the event is the wheelbarrow decorating contest, where the competitors traditionally dress in a disguise associated with their wheelbarrow’s theme.
La Louvière (link in French, best viewed in Google Chrome for translation) | March 19 to 21
Beginning on “Laetare” [Latin: Rejoice] Sunday, or the fourth Sunday of the Christian Lent period, La Louvière holds a three-day Carnival designed to expel winter spirits and encourage spring. The central performers, the “Gilles,” participate all three days, with dancing and fireworks featured throughout the event. A procession led by the giants “D’Jobri” and “D’Jobrette” is held on the second day of the Carnival (Monday), and the entire celebration ends Tuesday evening with the burning of an effigy dressed as a Gille.
La Roche-en-Ardenne (link in French, best viewed in Google Chrome for translation) | March 17 to 19
While smaller in scale than some other celebrations, “Carnaval de La Roche” still provides plenty of fun with grand balls, costumes, music and entertainment. On Saturday afternoon, the identity of the Carnival Prince is revealed at the foot of the La-Roche-en-Andenne castle, while a parade featuring floats from throughout the Benelux, Germany and France makes its way through the town on Sunday.
Malmedy | Feb. 18 to 21
Considered part of the intangible heritage of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, Malmedy’s “Cwarmê” has been celebrated for over 560 years. Multiple processions and performances take place throughout the four-day event, which closes out Tuesday evening with the burning of a “Haguète” effigy in the central square. The largest parade is held on Sunday, and features over 2,500 performers dressed in the Cwarmê’s 15 traditional character costumes.
Stavelot | March 18 to 20
The famous “Laetare de Stavelot” includes fireworks, confetti, light shows, and other fun festivities. On Sunday, there is a huge parade involving more than 2,000 local participants and beautiful floats. The “Blanc Moussis” are the traditional icons of the Carnival. They wear a white dress and a don carrot-nosed masks, parodying 15th-century monks who were forbidden from attending the festivities.
Tournai | (link in French, best viewed in Google Chrome for translation) March 17 to 19
The “Carnaval de Tournai” is based on creativity and imagination, with a new theme every year. The festivities are divided into three days: Friday is “La Nuit des Intrigues” [English: The Night of Intrigues], Saturday is Carnival and Sunday is “Le Tour des Cafés” [English: The Bar Tour]. Saturday is the biggest day of the celebration, with a masquerade and procession of “Confréries” [English: Brotherhoods] throughout the city streets, followed by a balloon release and the throwing of “Pichous,” traditional Carnival pastries.
Aachen | Feb. 16 to 22
The “tolle Tage” [English: Mad Days] kick off in Aachen on Fat Thursday, when the “Weiber” [English: Women] storm city hall, with celebrations continuing until Ash Wednesday. A grand procession is held on “Rosenmontag,” or Shrove Monday, where over 100 parade floats and performers escort the Carnival Prince through Aachen’s inner city while throwing colorful “Kamellen” sweets to the crowd. While this is usually considered the biggest event, the “Kinderkarnevalszug” [English: Children’s Carnival Procession] on Sunday is a special highlight of the Aachener Karneval. During the Children’s Procession, over 120 costumed children’s groups parade through the city accompanied by marching bands.
Düsseldorf | Feb. 16 to 22
As with many towns in Germany’s Rhineland region, the “Düsseldorfer Karneval” celebrations begin on Fat Thursday with “Altweiberfastnacht” [English: Women’s Carnival Day]. Women from the city storm the Rathaus and force the mayor to ‘resign’ for the day. The mayor, who is “kidnapped,” can only regain his place by bartering his freedom with the good wine stored in the cellars of the old town hall and by joining the celebrations. On Saturday, young and old revellers alike gather together to march through Düsseldorf’s city center during the “Kinder und Jugendsumzug” [English: Children and Youth Parade]. Düsseldorf’s biggest Carnival procession, the “Rosenmontagzug,” occurs on Shrove (or Rose) Monday and is considered one of the largest in Germany with over one million visitors each year.
Köln/Cologne | (link in German, best viewed in Google Chrome for translation) Feb. 16 to 22
Considered one of Germany’s largest Carnival celebrations, the “Kölner Karneval” celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2023. Starting with “Weiberfastnacht” [English: Women’s Night] on Fat Thursday, the city comes alive with six days of costumes and revelry. The events are presided over by the three fundamental figures of Köln’s Carnival: the “Prinz” [English: Prince], “Jungfrau” [English: Peasant] and “Bauer” [English: Maiden]. Many parades occur throughout the Carnival period, with the largest “Rosenmontagszug” [English: Shrove/Rose Monday Parade] boasting over 12,000 participants. As part of the 200th anniversary celebration, this year’s parade route has been adjusted and will cross the Rhine river for the first time.
Münster | Feb. 20
The main Carnival event in Münster is the “Rosenmontagsumzug” [English: Shrove/Rose Monday Parade]. Starting at 1:11 p.m., numerous Carnival societies from Münster, its surrounding area and even the Netherlands will parade through the city center from the Schlossplatz to the Prinzipalmarkt.
Beek | (link in Dutch, best viewed in Google Chrome for translation) Feb. 19 and 20
Known as “Baeker Vastelaovend” in its native Limburgish, the town of Beek celebrates Carnival with plenty of music and revelry. Its biggest event is the “Lichtstoet” [English: Light Procession] on Saturday, which is one of the only nighttime parades. Beginning around 7 p.m., the parade floats and light effects attract up to 50,000 visitors each year.
Eindhoven | (link in Dutch, best viewed in Google Chrome for translation) Feb. 17 to 21
For five days leading up to Ash Wednesday, Eindhoven is filled with the Carnival colors of orange and blue and transforms into “Lampegat” as part of the Dutch tradition of renaming cities during the festive season. Music and parties can be found at special marquees on the Markt and Wilhelminaplein, as well as in bars throughout the city. The identity of the year’s “Stadsprins” [English: City Prince], one of Eindhoven’s best kept secrets, is unveiled at the Federation Ball the Saturday before Carnival. On Sunday afternoon, the floats and costumed performers of the “Lampegaste Optocht” [English: Lampegat’s Procession] make their way through the city’s streets.
Heerlen | (link in Dutch, best viewed in Google Chrome for translation) Feb. 17 to 19
During the height of Carnival, Heerlen is filled with revelry and the Limburgish Carnival colors of red, yellow and green. The celebrations are presided over by both the “Sjtadsprins” [English: City Prince and “Jónkheedsprins” [English: Young Prince], who symbolically control the keys of the city during the festival season. The biggest events are the large “Grote Optocht” [English: Grand Procession] on Sunday, as well as the “Kinderoptocht” [English: Children’s Parade] the day prior.
Kerkrade | Feb. 19 to 21
Kerkrade welcomes enthusiasts and newcomers alike during it’s “three crazy days” of Carnival. Numerous colorful parades make their way through the city, with gatherings and other events occurring on each day. One of the main highlights is the traditional “KloneTrekke” [English: Clown Gathering] held on Shrove Tuesday. During the event, clowns from all throughout the area make their way through Kerkrade’s streets to the Markt square in order to close out the Carnival season together.
Maastricht | Feb. 19 to 21
“Vasteloavend” in Maastricht traditionally begins on Saturday during the “Sleuteloverdracht” [English: Transfer of the Key], where the city mayor hands over the keys to the city to that year’s Carnival Prince. Most of the city’s celebrations occur in the streets and squares, where brass bands known as “Zate Hermeniekes” perform throughout all three days. Sunday’s grand procession, also called the “Boonte Störm” in Maastricht, is considered a key highlight of the Carnival, with a variety of themed floats, brass bands and costumed participants. At midnight on Shrove Tuesday, a special ritual begins: the farewell to the Carnival Prince. Symbols and mascots of the Carnival are taken and burned, buried or drowned as a final send-off to the season.
Sittard | Feb. 16 to 21
Known as “Vastelaovend” or the “Zittesje Vastelaoves-6-Daagse” [English: Sittard 6-Day Carnival], Carnival in Sittard is primarily celebrated the six days leading up to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Christian Lent season. The most important figure in the celebrations is the “Stadsprins” [English: Carnival Prince], who oversees the city’s celebrations. Events and musical performances are held in cafés and at Sittard’s Markt throughout the Carnival period, with the “Groote Optoch Zitterd” [English: Grand Procession Sittard] held on Sunday. The parade is known for the high quality of its floats, and can attract as many as 80,000 visitors.
Feb. 2 to 22
Carnival in Luxembourg, called “Feusent,” officially runs from the Catholic holiday of Candlemas on Feb. 2 until Ash Wednesday, though some locations continue celebrating into the Lenten season. The biggest events are usually held between Fat Thursday (the Thursday before Lent) and Shrove Tuesday. Feusent is celebrated throughout the country, with cities and towns of all sizes holding masked balls or large, costumed street processions known as “Calvalcades.”
This series, Bits of the Benelux, will continue to explore the many cultural traditions in and around the Benelux. Further stories like this on the local traditions, festivals, and events are scheduled to be published monthly, as they occur.