Faces of Maastricht Carnival

These are the faces of the Maastricht Carnival. The faces of hearty street dancers, of shameless drunk singers, of new friends and fellow celebrators. Together, these faces create the perfect madness that is Vasteloavend in Mestreech.

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The history of carnival in Maastricht

February 10, 2007 by Hennie Reuvers 

During my childhood years in the late 1950’s, carnival didn’t start earlier than one week before Ash Wednesday. Our schoolmaster at the Saint Francis primary school, in the Maastricht district of Nazareth, would set out to teach us the new carnival song in Mestreechs, the dialect of Maastricht. These songs were often inspired by some local event and I still remember one in particular about the dustmen (or ‘drekmaan’ in dialect) who went on strike…

Carnival 1930, photograph: courtesy of Hennie Reuvers

My mother would stitch cowboy fringes onto our trousers and buy us new snap cap pistols. Donning the old cowboy hats that were still lying in the loft, we were soon ready for the school carnival on Saturday afternoon.

On Sunday morning, we went to watch the Big Carnival Parade (‘groete optoch‘). Shiplike floats displayed topical subjects, such as political events in the Belgian Congo, and funny individuals called Einzelgängerwere said to be dancing about with turds in their nappies.

During the next two days all the children were off school and passed the time playing ‘cowboys and Indians’. Then, on Ash Wednesday, Lent began and carnival was over.

I didn’t spend my adolescent years in Maastricht, but my children did. My daughter took part in the carnival festivities with her girlfriends disguised as a geisha or a samba dancer. Much to my grief, the feasting lasted all day and a large part of the night. After carnival, she was always ill. Nowadays, she’s had enough of these three days of madness, and flees from the city in good time.

What is carnival? 
Sober outsiders can’t easily understand what is going on. Where the hell does this folly come from? A bit of reading into the matter quickly made me realise that carnival is celebrated in many places all over the world, but not nearly everywhere. In the northern part of the Netherlands, it actually falls under the realm of ‘popish naughtiness’. (‘paapse stoutigheden‘)

Moreover, there are wide differences in the way the festival is celebrated. For example, the exuberant summer carnival of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil bears little similarity with the Farmers Wedding feast (‘Boerenbruiloft’) typical of the Dutch province of Brabant.

The origin of carnival appears to be mainly threefold and can be traced back to:
First, the Roman Saturnalia, Bacchanalia, and Lupercalia festivals. These were fertility rituals connected with the succession of the seasons. Slaves and women were sometimes allowed to be the boss for a while, or conversely, had to endure even more hardships.

Wodan, source: WikipediaSecond, the Germanic-Celtic pendants of the Roman festivals. These were also linked with fertility, and hence with death: for instance, the Wild Chase (‘Wilde Jacht’) represents a procession of slain warriors, led by Wodan. (This gives me a nice idea: why not go to carnival disguised as Wodan, the one-eyed supreme god with a wild beard, a soft hat and a wide mantle, riding on a white horse and flanked by two ravens?)

Third, the ecclesiastical feasts of fools. These held a reversal of the normal hierarchy as well. Since medieval times, the Catholic Church has gradually substituted Christian counterparts for the old heathen customs. Accordingly, Shrove Tide was the last occasion for pleasure before the beginning of Lent.

The Carrus Navalis 
The Dutch words for carnival are ‘carnaval‘ and ‘vastenavond‘.

There are two possible explanations for ‘vastenavond‘: First, it can be understood as ‘Fast evening’, meaning the eve of Lent. Second (as in the German word Fasnacht) it can refer to the Indo-European word stem ‘pes‘, and our word ‘penis‘, and thus to fertility.

For the word ‘carnaval‘ there are three explanations from Latin: First, carnevale – meat farewell, referring to the approach of Lent. Second, related to the first, carnelevare – to abolish the meat. Third, carrus navalis – ship cart, or float, and that’s something quite different.

Carnival float, photograph: http://hetiscarnaval.homestead.comFloats have been present in fertility festivals from Norway to Greece since pre-Christian times. Some historians think that the carnival float is a remainder of the ancient Indo-European brotherhoods. Other people consider it as a parody of the Ship of Saint Peter, which represents the Catholic Church. And that isn’t improbable either, because carnival has always been the festival of parody and reversed relationships.

The carrus navalis appears early enough in the written history of the Maastricht carnival: in 1133, a blue ship on wheels arrived from Aachen into Maastricht, dragged on by members of the guild of weavers, and continued its way to Tongeren. Scattered reports about vastenavond in Maastricht from later years exist as well. But how did the modern carnival festival come into being?

The Momus Society
The retreat of a strict government in favour of a more lenient one has always given a strong impulse to carnival. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, and the resulting Congress of Vienna, there was room for new associative life ‘for instruction and pleasure’ (‘tot lering ende vermaak’).Various carnival associations burgeoned in the Rhineland and the newly chosen carnival princes wore a fool’s hat that bore an uncomfortable resemblance with the Napoleonic bicorn, placed crosswise. Of course, the alert Maastricht people didn’t fail to notice this.

The Momus Society, named after the Greek god of satire, was founded in Maastricht in 1839. During its hundred years of existence, the Society organised many events in the fields of sports, charity and culture, among which also historical ‘cavalcades’ (historical parades with many horses) on the occasion of carnival. The first carnival parade organised by the Momus Society was a parody of the ‘entrée solennelle’ in 1520 of the emperor Charles V in Maastricht.

After buying the Momus House, located on the eastern side of the city centre’s beautiful Vrijthof square, the association refurbished the building, basing all the measurements on the number eleven, a symbolical number for carnival. Its front façade was adorned with the well-known stone fool’s head. In its 1872 association rules, the Momus Society speaks of “really-fine folly, but not beyond the boundaries of decency”.

Momus House in Maastricht, photograph: Herman Pijpers

Many humouristic orators gave addresses in Mestreechs. Mounted on a winged horse called Pegasus, the poets were allowed to escape from reality, but upon reaching the star constellation of the same name, they were met by eleven elves who would bring them back to Mother Earth. (In Dutch the number eleven is elf, which is also the word for the well known nature spirit, in English and German and Dutch. One of the (many) explanations for the symbolical carnival number eleven is that it comes from the name of the nature spirit (in old-German: alf).)

The carnival festivities 
Alphone Olterdissen, photograph: M.Reuvers-HendriksAt the beginning of the twentieth century, the Big Carnival Parade was organised by the unforgettable pacemaker Alphonse Olterdissen, whose cast iron statue stands in the Grote Looiers Street. Special committees were responsible for the other activities, both indoors and in the open air. Stately halls were reserved for high society, while the lower echelons would feast in the streets and pubs.

After 1936, a growing number of individuals started taking part in the carnival parades (a phenomenon known as the ‘Bonte Storm van Einzelgänger‘), and the mayor of Maastricht officially welcomed the city’s Prince Carnival at the municipal hall. More often than not, some ministers of the national government were present at the reception as well.

Momus cannon, photograph: Tempeleers websiteDuring the Second World War, the German authorities banned the festival, so it returned with new vitality after the war.

Every year the city’s carnival festivities are organised by Maastricht’s main carnival association the Tempeleers and the people of Maastricht choose a new carnival song, composed in Mestreechs. The Prince heralds carnival with eleven shots from the old Momus cannon, and hoists up a large papier-mâché puppet, the Mooswief, which represents the patroness of the Maastricht carnival. This is the well-known woman selling vegetables at the market, whose stone statue stands on the Market square. She guards the festival from above. At the closing ceremony marking the end of carnival, the Prince hauls the puppet down again.

In the 1960’s, young people began to challenge authority all over the western world, and carnival developed even further in Maastricht. ‘Drunken’ wind bands (‘zate herremeniekes‘) increasingly began to contribute to the colourful street festival.

The meaning of carnival for the people of Maastricht
Mooswief, photograph: Tempeleers brochureAn elderly Maastricht resident told me that in his early days, people used to pray the forty-hour prayer for the poor sinners who couldn’t behave during carnival. In his view, people who didn’t grow up in Maastricht couldn’t celebrate vastelaovond in the right way. As for himself, he had taken part in the organisation of both religious processions and carnival parades. For instance, he had led a group of winged motorscooters, offering a solution for the traffic problems on the old Saint Servaas bridge. He explained that although one could borrow things from the Tempeleers’ storehouse, people usually had to do most of the work without help. He regretted that nowadays, ‘people weren’t patient enough to prepare a nice act for the parade.’ He saw leadership as a serving task. As a matter of fact, carnival pacemakers were often leaders in sports clubs or in youth work organisations as well.

I also spoke with a most friendly Tempeleer and former Prince Carnival. He told me that in the early eighties some Tempeleer friends had tricked him into the function of Prince. In his role, he had had to pay visits to all the rest homes in Maastricht for several weeks. During vastelaovond, perfect strangers had poured out their hearts to him. His broad fool’s head has been beaming with festive joy ever since.

Prince Carnival in Maastricht, Carnival 2006, photograph: Tempeleers websiteWhen I asked him about the origin of the Maastricht carnival, he replied that this was a mystery, and should remain a mystery forever. Moreover, he presently had more important things to think about. The Tempeleers wished to proclaim our city’s mayor Gerd Leers the most thorough-going mayor of the whole Meuse-Rhine Euroregion. And this was going to happen during a festal Veolia bus ride along the trenches caused by the inner city works. It had to be an event with esprit, the former Prince Carnival stated, ‘because esprit was the basis of the Maastricht Vastelaovond.’

The Mestreechter Geis
The spirit of Maastricht (Mestreechter Geis) has been greatly influenced by the city’s history.

First of all, we think about Catholicism: severe in theory, but mild for the confessant. The people of Maastricht know that the soup is not as hot when you eat it as when it is served (‘De soep wordt nooit zo heet gegeten als dat zij wordt opgediend’). Second, we think of new rulers turning up again and again throughout the centuries. They come with awful war violence, proclaim severe laws, and depart to be replaced by new rulers with other laws. The people of Maastricht have learned to consider how to ignore the new rules without offending the authorities. This is how they played off the rulers from Liège against those from Brabant for many centuries.

The spirit of Maastricht (Mestreechter Geis), photograph: Sueli Brodin

Humour and practical jokes are a necessary part of this way of being. Maastricht humour is mild and doesn’t violate other people’s dignity. The people of Maastricht will not directly confront another person’s viewpoint, preferring to demonstrate in a subtle way that their opinion differs.

And for Maastricht, dialect is indispensable too. No other city in the Netherlands cherishes its dialect to the same degree. Mestreechs is a ‘sweet language’ (‘zeute taol’ ) indeed. Both high and low society speak it, much thanks to the Momus Society and Olterdissen!

The popularity of carnival
Carnival in Maastricht, photograph: M.Reuvers-HendriksThe Indo-European brotherhoods may be the forerunners of freemasonry, but not of the modern carnival associations. Of course, it is in the character of men to gather in clubs, lest they should always sit at home (which reminds of a nice movie: Sons of the Desert, starring Laurel and Hardy.) And it is no secret that women enjoy dressing up. Seen in this light, carnival is an excellent occasion for young men and women to contact each other in a virtuous way.

But in my view, a more important reason for the popularity of carnival is the opportunity to be creative among friends: just think of the costumes, the floats, the puppets, the music, the speeches, the magazines, the comical acts, the organisation, and so on.

However, our Catholic writer Bertus Aafjes once formulated the most important aspect of carnival: the opportunity to let the soul tread outside of the body. This is quite unlike debauchery. When people from the north of the Netherlands come to celebrate carnival in Maastricht, they often make this painful mistake.

So all in all, it appears that historical circumstances in Maastricht favouring the development of a strong carnival tradition were just exceptionally good!

By Hennie Reuvers

Dressing up for carnival in Maastricht, photograph: M.Reuvers-Hendriks


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