Belgium's about to go carnival-crazy again

08/02/2018

The 2018 carnival season is a time when people accept mockery more easily and set aside their worries for a while. Noisy hordes of people in fancy dress and masks parade through the streets mocking the established order and hurling confetti and candy at the crowds of spectators that spur them on.

However, the distant origins of present-day carnivals can be traced back to nature. The worst of winter was over, spring was on the horizon. People wore masks inspired by nature, symbolising the divine power of sacred animals in order to turn their backs on the evil spirits of winter and make the sun shine and bring nature back to life.

In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church imposed a severe 40-day fast on the population. Meat, eggs and other items were forbidden. It was called mortification or carne vale (goodbye to meat! in Latin). It is possible that our "carnival" comes from this. Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, but the three days before it were "fat" and therefore it was possible to feast. Nowadays, the dates and duration are less strict and sometimes it is not uncommon to continue to feast after Easter.

Some Belgian towns have established a solid reputation for themselves when it comes to carnival, each one developing its own specific tradition: of course, there is Aalst and Binche, but also Maaseik, Malmédy and Eupen, which are not to be outdone. Of course, there is nothing quite like taking part.  Here is the programme:

Aalst: parade floats, dancing participants, individual groups picking fun at current affairs, the broom dance and broom tossing, onion throwing, the Day of the "Voil Jeanetten (Dirty Sissies)" (men dressed in ridiculous women's clothing, a fur coat and often topped off with a lampshade as a hat. They arm themselves with accessories such as a pram, a broken umbrella and a birdcage containing a herring, not to mention a hearty portion of unadulterated hilarity from Aalst), the burning of the giant doll.

Maaseik: old wives ball, street carnival, clown procession

Binche: Spanish roots, hunchbacked Gilles, tall feathered hats, drummers, the soumonces, La Nuit des Trouilles de Nouille, beautifully adorned and elegant dance groups, postcard and flower-selling for charity, the circle dance for friendship, fireworks, mad farandole, and more.

Malmédy: cwarmê (= carnival), children and adults dressed up in costumes and masks, children's ball, the trouv’le (= prince of carnival), procession march, torch parade, the Danse de la Haguette, parade of floats, marching bands, the hape-tchâr (similar to large, extendable wooden scissors), wild men, harlequins, langneuzen (long noses) and pierrots, exuberant masked couples, satirical pageants, the burning of the giant doll.

Eupen: Rosenmontag, carnival traditions from the nearby German Rhineland, Kappensitzung, the Büttenredner, a bright and varied spectacle featuring pierrots, flower children, well-dressed country knaves, chimney sweeps, bad drivers, two-legged elephants, jungle inhabitants, balloon pilots, butterflies, giant frogs, etc.

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