With carnival only a few days away, I can imagine the people lucky enough to live in Limburg and Brabant (the main Catholic regions in The Netherlands where carnival is celebrated) are already fine tuning their costumes, deciding which bars to go to, and looking forward to the upcoming days off. But I bet not many are thinking about gossip, when talking about carnival.
A few researchers, however, do make the link. Clegg and Iterson (2009), for example, have compared gossip to carnival when analysing power relations in the work place, and observe that just like during carnival, “the lower orders of social life mock and subvert the dominant order and authorities.” Since subordinates in the workplace are often powerless in front of their managers, they tend to revert to gossip to resist authority.
Jerome Mintz (1997) in his book Carnival Song and Society: Gossip, Sexuality and Creativity in Andalusia shows that carnival, traditionally, belonged to the lower classes and provided a platform to people who were usually voiceless. During the holiday, members of the upper classes were concerned with being “the butt of unbridled gossip and criticism,” and usually, cloistered themselves at home.
At the start of the carnival in Maastricht, for example, the key to City Hall is handed over to Prince Carnival. In this tradition, that goes back to the Middle Ages, social order is inverted: the poorer inhabitants take control of the city during these three days and poke fun at their politicians (Sprangers, R., 2011).
While most researchers agree that gossip is the exchange of information about an absent third party, Foster (2004) claims that there are exceptions to this definition, and that gossip does occur sometimes in front of the target.
For Medini and Rosenberg (1976), the defining feature of gossip is “that it contrasts the discrepancy between the public and the private life. It is the instrument for those who wish to know how life is lived behind the social mask” (as cited in Foster, 2004, p.81).
For others, the very fact of having a mask on, eliminates any inhibitions and self-censorship. Gilmore (1978), for example, describes carnival in a small Spanish community as the “fiesta of gossip”, where people take to the streets “in a giant masquerade and hurl slander, vilification, and innuendo openly at each other.” (as cited in Foster, 2004, p. 81).
Mintz (1997) analyses the songs composed by musicians, such as Los Llorones (the Weepers), who started performing during the carnival of 1966, in the province of Cadiz in Spain. The members of Los Llorones belonged to the working class, and sang mainly about “matters of local concern.” According to the author, the songs were similar to a gossip magazine or tabloid newspaper.
Most of the songs talked about affairs, illicit sex, hasty marriages, and family conflicts within the community. According to Mintz, one of the topics of predilection was unwanted pregnancy. However, the most critical songs described the work life, and denounced exploitative land owners and low level bosses:
Also at some farms they put / a foreman in charge / to squeeze without conscience / and to keep an eye on his fellow workers / if someone falls behind. / The foreman won’t keep quiet / and they inform to the bosses / for they are without shame. (p.45)
A friend of mine in Limburg told me the story of employees taking a pair of scissors and cutting off their boss’ tie. He didn’t take it badly, apparently, because it was carnival. The employees were also able to criticize him openly without offending him, because it was carnival.
But, hey… maybe that’s just gossip!