Hennie Reuvers finds out what lies behind the elaborate costumes and accent on humour specific to this city festival.
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 Dutch spoken in 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.
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’). Ship-like floats displayed topical subjects, such as political events in the Belgian Congo, and funny individuals called Einzelgänger were said to be dancing about with ‘turds in their nappies’.
For the next two days, children were off school and passed the time playing ‘cowboys and Indians’. Then, on Ash Wednesday, Lent began and carnival was over.
So where 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. In the northern part of the Netherlands it is even referred to as ‘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 three-fold 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.
Second, 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 the one-eyed supreme god Wodan on his white steed.
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 (Shrove Tuesday) 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 ‘Fasting evening’, meaning the eve of Lent. Secondly (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.
Floats 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 or ‘Bark’ 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 1550 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”.
Elves and flying horses
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 being ‘eleven’ is that it comes from the name of the nature spirit (in old-German: alf).Many humoristic 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 which brought them back to Mother Earth.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the ‘Big Carnival Parade’ was organised by 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.
During the Second World War, the German authorities banned the festival, so it returned with renewed vitality after the war.
Now the association of the Tempeleers has seized the reins of the Maastricht carnival. Every year the Tempeleers choose a new carnival song, composed in Mestreechs. They herald Carnival with eleven shots from the old Momus cannon, and hoist up a large papier-mâché puppet, which represents their patroness, the Mooswief. This is the well-known greengrocer’s wife, whose stone statue stands on the Market square. She guards the festival from above. At the closing ceremony marking the end of carnival, the Tempeleers haul the puppet down again.
In the 1960’s, young people began to challenge authority all over the western world, and the carnival developed even further in Maastricht. ‘Drunken’ wind bands (zate herremeniekes) increasingly began to contribute to the colourful street festival.
What carnival means to the people of Maastricht
An 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 hadn’t grown up in Maastricht couldn’t celebrate Vastenavond in the ‘right’ way, and, what’s more, he had experience in organising both religious processions and carnival parades.
For instance, he had led a group of winged motor-scooters, offering a solution for the traffic problems on the old Saint Servaas bridge. He explained that although one could borrow things from the Tempeleer storehouse, people usually had to do most of the work without any 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 Tempeleer and former Prince Carnival, who 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 Vastenaovond, perfect strangers had poured out their hearts to him. His broad ‘fool’s head’ has been beaming with festive joy ever since.
When 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 had “more important things to think about at that moment”.
The Tempeleers wished to proclaim our city’s mayor Gerd Leers the most thorough-going mayor of the whole Meuse-Rhine Euro region. 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 Vastenavond.’
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 ‘De soep wordt nooit zo heet gegeten als dat zij wordt opgediend‘ (literally ‘the soup is not as hot when you eat it as when it is served’). Second, we think of new rulers turning up again and again throughout the centuries. They come with the violence of war, proclaim severe laws, and leave only to be replaced by new rulers with new laws.
The people of Maastricht have learned how to ignore the new rules without offending the authorities and in this manner have played off the rulers from Liège against those from Brabant for centuries. Humour and practical jokes indispensable are a necessary part of this way of being. However typical 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.
The popularity of carnival
The Indo-European brotherhoods may be the forerunners of freemasonry, but not of the modern carnival associations. Nowadays the carnival is popular because it gives people an opportunity to be creative among friends. Evidence of this creative collaboration is the elaborate costumes, the floats, the puppets, the music, the speeches, the magazines, the comical acts, and the organisation.
Plus, as our Catholic writer Bertus Aafjes put it, the most important aspect of carnival is the opportunity to let the soul tread outside of the body – a statement which should not be taken to mean debauchery or pagan rituals, but rather ‘high spirits’ and fun.
8 February 2007
Dr Hennie Reuvers (1951) is a retired teacher of mathematics from Maastricht. He likes to solve maths problems, but is also interested in history. He is married and the father of four children.
Published with the permission of Crossroads, a web magazine for expatriates in Maastricht, the Netherlands”. (www.ejc.nl/crossroads).