Confetti time in Belgium

I am not a carnaval girl. Never been so. Already in kindergarden I made my elephant masks but when we were supposed to do little dances in the afternoon and party I withdrew in the corner and watched it from the sideline. As a grown-up I still link in my mind carnaval with artificial fun and drunk roudy crowds.

But some of you (non-Belgians) might not know that carnaval/Mardi Gras is celebrated big time in some of our cities as well. Every year I have colleagues that take the first 3 days of spring break off if they live in/nearby Aalst, Binche, Mons, .... because they can't miss carnaval and their hangover is too big to even consider coming to work.

Firt of all Belgium always has a school vacation in the week of Ash Wednesday (all are vacations are still related with a roman catholic calander). The last day before the vacation most schools have carnaval parties that allow the children to dress up, make masks, put make-up on and costumes and dance. So children grow up with it.

Carnaval historically originates from the start of lent (40 days before Easter) on Ash Wednesday (=tomorrow) and the tradition to party and eat without limits before the sober period of lent starts. If you look at the maps where the world's biggest carnaval celebrations take place, they all have links to latin/catholic traditions: Brazil, New Orleans, southern Netherlands, East-Southern Germany, Belgium, Venice, ....

So it was confetti time in Belgium too. In Flanders the main carnaval before the start of lent takes place in the city of Aalst. Many carnaval societies work all year in preperation of their floats that mock Belgian & international politics and any trend in society. Big election campaigns in the fall elect a "Prince carnaval" who gets the city keys for 3 days and rules over the city from Sunday until Tuesday night. On Sunday afternoon a big parade goes out attended by all main Flemish politicians under the sight of thousands of spectators and tourists. The next days the carnavalists from Aalst party all day and night and have some more parades and a big closing event. Obviously all of it is accompagnied by the most horrible silly humpahpah music. (enjoy online here)

Other cities have similar events on a much smaller scale: remember the parade in front of my sister's house later on during lent and here's some pictures from the parade in Lokeren.

In the east of the country in Limburg, the carnaval celebrations are later on during lent as well and tie in with the nearby Dutch and German traditions. I found this funny article with pictures of all elected princes carnaval of that region. Wow, talk about a lot of them!

Leuven itself has carnaval later on as well (7th of March in 2009) but it's so widespread that you usually go shopping and notice some confetti on the street and wonder what happened and then you see some drunk dressed up people coming out of a pub and you realise you've just missed a carnaval parade :p. But that might be once again my own fault as there's some organisations that are quite involved after all, which do get in the local media. And we have an elected prince too :).

But most famous is the carnaval in Wallonia however. The carnaval celebrations in Binche are even proclaimed "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" by UNESCO.
they are charchterized by the Gilles who march through the city in their colorful costumes, heralded by drums. Also other Wallonian cities have Gilles. Being a gilles is quite an honor and can only be fulfilled by male inhabitants of the city. They start getting ready 4 AM and the the drums go and pick up the first Gilles and then gather more and more Gilles in their homes to an ever growing group gathering in the city centre. They are received in the city hall and only afterwards put their masks on. As you can see it are all very strictly ruled traditions. The famous costumers can only be worn on Mardi Gras. The weeks and days before there are however a lot of other festivities and rehearsals. I found some great pictures here on Flickr from Karolien Taverniers and by jeroen Tiggelman.

So maybe I should review my years-old prejudice that it's only about getting drunk and roudy ;)....maybe next year or so.


Lilacspecs said…
I've heard about the celebration in Aalst although CB told me about it and it sounds more like college homecoming than anything else and I did that for 3 years already in college!
He did mention maybe going to Binche next year for carnaval though, so that's worth looking into.
And Mardi Gras is huge in the Southern part of the US but not where I'm from. I'd love to be in New Orleans one year for it though.
When C and I visited our German daughter/sister in Warendorf, we had a great time at the Carneval there, and C loved getting all the candy, needless to say. It was great fun. S's boyfriend at the time, though, had gigs from 10 in the morning until 11:30 at night that day, all of which included lots of drinking, and he was pretty hammered when he rejoined us in the evening.
Mike said…
Not a carnaval lover? That's me.


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