Last Saturday I went with Michiel to the town where he grew up, Bergen op Zoom. There they have a lot of very very strange traditions, such as the one I witnessed while I was there: the 11th of November Goat Ceremony.
Before I get into the details of the Goat Ceremony, first you have to know a little about the celebration of Carnaval in Europe. In the countries where it is celebrated, the Carnaval festival is held in the time just before Ash Wednesday, or Lent (I think). In the past it was just an excuse to use up all the tasty food before people started fasting, a kind of totally blown-out Shrove Tuesday. Unlike its Irish counterpart, however, Carnaval goes on for more than one day. It lasts for several days in the more calvanistic places, a couple of weeks in more normal regions, and maybe even a month in places where they really let their hair down and go for it.
It started in Bergen op Zoom on the 11th of November. That’s last Saturday – at least a full 3 months before lent. Are you starting to get the idea of just how crazy these people are?
This year the Goat Ceremony had a special significance for Bergen op Zoom, because a new Carnaval Prince was elected for the first time in 12 years. Let me explain: for Carnaval, there is always somebody elected “Prince” of the city by a sort of official organisational body for that city. This person is basically an average Joe, representative of that region with a bit of character and a sense of humour. Anyway, he gets the key to the city, and can parade around for the duration of the Carnaval festival and receive lots of honours, gets lots of attention, maybe give a speech or two, etc. etc. He’s quite popular.
In Bergen op Zoom, they have 4 such characters. They have the Prince, the Jester, a policeman called “Steketee” (pronounced STAY-kuh-TAY) and the Grootste Boer (literally “biggest farmer”, but I saw this guy and trust me, they come much bigger than him). So these guys are always played by the same 4 people in Bergen op Zoom, until one of them decides he’s had enough of all the honour and glory and decides to throw in the towel. Well, that’s what the Prince did last year, and so this year they had to have a new one. His identity is traditionally always revealed at the Goat Ceremony on 11th of November, when they also announce the theme of next year’s Carnaval (kind of like the fancy dress guidelines for the following year’s celebrations). Everybody was so excited, I could hardly believe it. It was worse than a presidential election and twice as scary. Let me explain what happened.
Firstly, at around 10pm, I had to get dressed up in a Boerenkiel (that hideously oversized navy blue garment you can just see under all that other stuff – see photo). Then I needed a specifically red (has to be red) handkerchief fastened around my neck with a tiepin in the form of — that’s right, you guessed it — a goat. Plus a plaster medallion from last year, a funny hat, and lastly an old lace curtain wrapped around my neck. This was how I left the house at around 10:20pm last Saturday night. I’m sure you won’t believe me when I say that my outfit was nothing compared to the stuff that other people were wearing. It looked like some of them had covered a headpiece with glue, and then dipped it in the contents of a million bottom drawers. These people had so much stuff hanging from their hats and jackets, everybody was like a walking jumble sale. Lampshades and curtains were very popular items.
Anyhow, so we walked into town, had a beer, and then proceeded to the statue of the Goat. There, around the statue, was a crowd of people about the same size as the population of a small African country, dressed in their hats, lampshades, curtains and other sundry items. Just try to imagine for a moment what this looked like. I’d also like to add at this point that by now it was pouring with rain, and there were about 4 brass bands playing different songs simultaneously in an area about half the size of an average schoolyard. No-one seemed bothered by any of this at all.
About ten minutes later another, more powerful brass band started up, and a procession came towards the statue dressed in red pointed hats and carrying torches. As they neared the statue I was convinced that they were going to hang a black person or something, but Michiel assured me that nothing quite so drastic would happen. So anyway this guy in the Prince’s hat and covered by a sheet got up onto the statue and revealed himself to the onlookers, and no-one really even knew who he was, which was very disappointing.
Just when everybody was getting over their disappointment, another band started up, and another procession with torches arrived, meaning that the first one had been a prank and that the unidentified guy hadn’t been the new Prince at all. So we all saw the new Prince, an average-looking guy of around 24, in the special hat, yadayadayada. Everyone was really excited.
I won’t describe the whole ceremony in detail here, but suffice it to say that we did roughly the following (not necessarily in this order): we took off our hats and sang a song about the Goat losing a piece of its udder (in the local dialect, no less); counted 11 rings of a bell (it all has to happen at 11:11pm, you see); repeated a speech line-by-line that the Grootste Boer delivered to the Goat; listened to the Prince’s speech; sang the Goat-udder song again; knelt in the grass (which by this stage had become mud because of the rain – long live Dutch weather); bowed to the statue; sang the udder song once more; and followed the procession back into town. Oh, and we frequently had to place our left thumbs on our noses and extend our fingers upwards, as though we were making fun of somebody. Is this sounding like the Freemasons yet?
After this hour of the most bizarre behaviour I had witnessed in a long time (and I’ve been to Helsinki in the middle of winter), I was told that this was only the tip of the iceberg, and that it all really got going in the 4 weeks before Ash Wednesday. I won’t tell Michiel this, but I think I might actually give Bergen op Zoom a wide berth around that time. (Just kidding darling – of course I’ll come down one weekend).
Our next goal was of course to get into a pub somewhere and get hammered, but since 11-11-2006 happened to be a Saturday this year, the entire town was out doing the same thing, and those who know about Dutch pubs and Dutch towns know that there simply aren’t enough pubs to accommodate the population of a small city all at once. So we had a couple of slightly disappointing drinks in a smallish pub with no brass band, then went home for hot chocolate.
Despite all the bizarreness, I actually have to say I had a pretty good time. I might even raid my bottom drawer for stuff to put on my hat next year…