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Men dressed as Gilles in Biche
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At this time of year, cities and towns all over Belgium celebrate Carnival. It’s the few days leading up to the Christian season of Lent, preceding Easter. For such a small country, there’s quite a bit of revelry. And unlike many Belgian traditions, it’s not limited to a linguistic or geographic region of the country. Carnivals take place throughout Wallonia, Flanders, and even in Brussels.

Some carnivals in Belgium are so renown they’ve reached UNESCO status. Except for one festival that was de-listed in 2019…but more on that later.

The three most notable Carnivals in Belgium are in Binche, Malmedy, and Aalst.

Carnaval de Binche

The Carnaval de Binche is an old, unique tradition in the Belgian town of Binche, located in French-speaking Wallonia. It was recognized as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2003. The carnival takes place each year on the three days preceding the start of Lent, known as Shrove Sunday, Shrove Monday, and Shrove Tuesday (Dimanche Gras, Lundi Gras, and Mardi Gras in French).

Read more about Belgium’s UNESCO heritage: 3 UNESCO Sites You Can Visit in Brussels

The festivities in Binche center around the town’s societies. These groups include Gilles, Peasants, Pierrots, Harlequins. They’re characters who dress up in traditional costumes, march in the processions, and generally carry out the customs of the Carnival. These characters are also accompanied by musicians.

Three men dressed as Gilles in Binche
Gilles at the Binche Carinval
Attribution: Photo by Farrukh shared under (CC BY-NC 2.0) license

The Carnival Events in Binche

On Shrove Sunday, participants flood the main square in their secretly prepared costumes, which usually adhere to a theme. There’s parading and dancing most of the day. On Monday, the youth societies parade through the city and have confetti battles at various cafés in the city center.

The main event is Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi gras. It starts with a traditional breakfast of champagne and oysters at 7:00 AM. Then, the Gilles, Peasants, Pierrots, and Harlequins gather at the main town square to receive jubilee medals at town hall.

There’s a break for lunch and then at 3:00 PM the procession starts. All the societies wear their elaborate costumes, which they make according to traditions. The Gilles even throw oranges into the crowd for good luck! It all ends with a night procession, followed by fireworks.

Group of boys dressed as Pierrots in Binche
Younger boys at the Binche Carnival dress up as Pierrots
Attribution: Photo by Andrea Kirkby shared under a (CC BY-NC 2.0) license

History of the Binche Carnival

Historians are unsure where the specific traditions of the Carnival of Binche originated from. They believe that it goes all the way back to 1549, with the very first parade of Gilles through the town. Although its origins are shrouded in mystery, the residents of Binche devote themselves to upholding its traditions. For this reason, it’s been deemed UNESCO-worthy, and is truly one of the highlights of Belgian culture at this time of year.

Curious about more Belgian traditions? Read Where Do Belgian (French) Fries Come From?

Le Cwarmê in Malmedy

Malmedy is in French-speaking Wallonia. The Carnival, known as “Le Cwarmê”, is a steadfast Walloon tradition. While it’s not on the UNESCO list, the French Community of Belgium has recognised Le Cwarmê as intangible heritage. Just like in Binche, the carnival is rich with significant, age-old customs.

Cwarmê refers to the period that lasts four days before Lent. It starts Saturday at noon and goes until midnight on Tuesday. There are 15 official, folkloric figures that take part in Cwarmê. The principal characters are “Lu Trouv’lê”, “Lu Grosse Police”, and “Lu Haguète.”

Shrove Sunday parade in Malmedy
The Parade in Malmedy on Shrove Sunday
Attribution: Photo by Doudoudidon shared under a (CC BY-SA 4.0) license

Events at Le Cwarmê

Each day of the festival has its purpose. On Saturday you’ll see the different societies’ tailor-made costumes according to a specific theme. There’s a parade and public recognition of the folk characters, all of whom are represented by “Lu Trouv’lê.” On Sunday, all the figures are in their traditional costumes, making it the most colorful day of the festival. Monday is for plays performed entirely in wallon, the regional dialect of French.

On Tuesday, all the societies prepare for a final parade through the city. Then, in the evening, everyone gathers at the main square of Malmedy, to hold the closing ceremony of Cwarmê. A straw version of “Lu Haguète”, one of the most important figures in the whole festival, is burned atop a pile of wood. This signals the end of Cwarmê and symbolizes the end of winter.

burning a straw version of La Hugete at the end of Le Cwarme
Burning “La Hugète” at the end of Le Cwarmê
Attribution: Photo by Revo1210 shared under a (CC BY-SA 4.0) license

Le Cwarmê Traditions

Cwarmê’s traditions date back to June 1459. Residents of Malmedy have held the carnival in some form since the 15th century, despite periodic bans in the 17th, 18th, and 20th centuries. The Malmedians’ dogged persistence in continuing Cwarmê has contributed to its status as intangible heritage in Belgium, drawing over 2,500 spectators and participants each year.

Aalst Carnaval

Aalst is in Dutch-speaking Flanders, about halfway between Brussels and Ghent. As in Binche and Malmedy, the Carnival is an ancient tradition that was, until recently, also a UNESCO Intangible Heritage listing.

The festivities in Aalst start on Shrove Sunday and last until the evening of Shrove Tuesday. Participants dress up in costumes for the Carnival. The costumes in Aalst are less about traditional characters and more about satire. The Aalst Carnival is a chance for residents to take aim at local and international issues of the past year, resulting in controversial costumes and parade floats.

people dressed in costumes at the Aalst Carnival
Carnival participants in Aalst
Attribution: Photo by Andrea Kirkby shared under a (CC BY-SA 2.0) license

At the center of the festival is Prince Carnaval. He becomes Aalst’s symbolic mayor, “receiving” the key to the city on Sunday during a ceremony which heavily mocks the town’s actual politicians. There’s also a parade with meticulously designed floats, which are judged in a competition.

Recent Controversy in Aalst

The Carnival festivities in Aalst have drawn a great deal of media attention lately. The Aalst Carnival was, like Binche, recognized by UNESCO – until last year. At the 2019 edition, festival organizers came under for fire for depicting Jews according to derogatory stereotypes, with oversized hooked noses, carrying bags of money. The backlash was swift, and the Aalst mayor preemptively removed the Carnival from the UNESCO list so that it wouldn’t be banned by the organization itself.

Rather than backing down in the face of the 2019 criticism, it seems that Aalst used those objections as fuel for the 2020 Carnival. The number of Jewish caricatures at the parade actually increased this year. Some groups chose to dress up as Hasidic Jews with the bodies and legs of ants.

parade floats in the Aalst Carnival
Parade floats in Aalst
Attribution: Photo by Wikisid shared under a (CC BY 3.0) license

Both the mayor and the town’s residents defended their choices to ridicule Jews and other minorities, citing free speech. They don’t see it as anti-Semitism. They assert that they mock everyone at the Carnival, not only Jews. The greater number of Jewish stereotypes at this year’s parade doesn’t seem to support that sentiment in the eyes of critics, however.

Tradition or Disrespect?

The rest of Belgium and the EU – and many other countries around the world, for that matter – disagree strongly with the Aalst community. The Belgian prime minister condemned the Carnival for anti-Semitism, and EU officials joined her. There are already demands for investigations into the Carnival for anti-Semitism. One is from the American Jewish Committee, directed toward the EU and another is from four political parties in the Netherlands, directed toward Belgium.

The future of the Aalst Carnival remains uncertain. It usually draws 100,000 spectators each year, making it one of the biggest Carnivals in the country. It also has a 600-year history, like the festivities in Binche and Malmedy. That wasn’t enough to keep its UNESCO status, though. And drawing so much ire from the international community might make it less appealing to tourists in the years to come.

Carnival in Belgium

Binche, Malmedy, and Aalst aren’t the only cities with Carnival traditions. Celebrations take place all over the country, including in Brussels. Being three of the most famous in Belgium, however, these celebrations are representative of the country’s Carnival culture – both the good and the bad. Events in Aalst provide a good opportunity to examine how heritage and traditions can either uphold or deny respect for certain groups of people.

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Featured image: Photo by Andrea Kirkby shared under a (CC BY-NC 2.0) license

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Welcome to All Abroad

Thanks for stopping by! My name's Courtney. I'm a travel and politics writer based in Brussels, Belgium. I write about travel, culture, expat life, and food & wine - infusing a bit of politics into each. Learn more about this blog here.