A guide to celebrating carnival in Belgium 2016
Belgian carnivals revel in history and folklore, with several celebrations dating more than 500 years. Find out the top Belgian carnival events in 2016.
Before the period of Lent begins 40 days before Easter, Belgians take part in the frivolous tradition of carnival – with a quirky Belgian twist. Heads are bopped with pig bladders, oranges thrown at crowds and flesh pinched – all in the name of fun, and in some cases, good luck.
Every year floats, bands and extravagantly costumed revellers fill the streets and dance to welcome carnaval season, reflecting various historic practices of engaging in frolic before the penitential season begins.
Traditionally, carnival stems from pagan traditions to expel winter spirits and encourage spring, although it became tied to the Christian period of Lent around the turn of the 6th century. Unlike their Dutch neighbours whose carnival celebrations finish before Ash Wednesday, the starting day of Lent, the Belgians’ festival season extends until mid-Lent in March.
It is also a time to indulge in carnival regional specialities, such as the sweet meringue Baisers de Malmedy, Pets-de-nonne ('nun's fart') of fried choux-pastry, or the cream-filled doughnuts Boules de Berlin.
If you want to partake in the frivolities, here are the top Belgian carnival celebrations, including the most famous of Belgium's quirky carnivals, the carnivals of Binche, Aalst, Malmedy, and Laetare.
Carnival of Binche: 7–9 February 2016
The Carnival of Binche is one of the most popular carnival celebrations in the world. Recognised as a cultural treasure by UNESCO due to its 14th-century roots, the festival takes place in the medieval, walled town of Binche, Hainaut, near the French border.
Events to drive evil spirits away start on Sunday with a procession, followed by a musical event on Monday. The folkloric event culminates on Shrove Tuesday when about 1,000 local men transform into the clown-like character called Gilles. Wearing identical wax masks, wooden clogs and straw-stuffed, medieval black, red and yellow costumes, the performers gather at the town’s Grand Palace to perform a dance with brooms and ‘sweep evil spirits away’. The ‘ramon’ they hold – a bunch of willow twigs – represents a broomstick, and Gilles throw twigs to people they know to bring them good luck. It is said the carnival costumes were a 19th-century revival of a feast held in 1549 in honour of ruler Charles V, in which courtiers wore disguises. You can learn more at Binche's museum dedicated to the carnival.
In mid-afternoon, the Gilles shed their masks in exchange for hats adorned with tall, white ostrich plumes. They sing and dance in the middle of busy streets and, armed with baskets of blood oranges, pelt the crowd with fruits – a symbol of fertility and the coming spring. Bystanders are considered lucky if they get hit by the oranges, and it is an insult to throw it back.
- From 9am: Costumed viola and tambour (drum) players entertain the city.
- From 3pm: Carnival procession departs from Eugène Derbaix Square.
- From 10am: Youths parade accompanied by violas.
- From 4pm: Friendship Rondeau at the Grand-Place.
- From 7pm: Fireworks in the Eugène Derbaix Square.
- From dawn: Gilles, peasants, pierrots and arlequins entertain around the city.
- From 8.30am: A reception takes place at city hall, where the Gilles don their wax masks.
- From 3pm: The main procession starts, and finishes with a 'rondeau' (dance and festivities) on the Grand-Place.
- From 7.30pm: Illuminated night procession and rondeau.
- From 9.30pm: Bonfire on the Grand-Place
Carnival of Malmedy: 6–9 February 2016
Cwarmê, as it's known in the local Walloon dialect, translates into four days of boisterous fun in the city of Malmedy during carnival season. Four Thursdays preceding Shrove Tuesday, an assortment of balls and parades are staged throughout the town in a gradual build up to the main event. Malmedy celebrates its 558th carnival in 2016, and has been recognised as Immaterial Heritage of the Wallonia-Brussels community.
A parade of 'Grosse Police' (Fat Police) on Shrove Saturday signals the start of Cwarmê, which officially opens when the city mayor presents the trouv'lê (carnival mayor) – a figure wearing a top hat and clad in fiery red – with a seed scoop, signifying he has the keys to the town until Tuesday evening.
The next day, known as Dimanche Gras, is famous for its large parade and a dance by the principal characters of Cwarmê, the Haguètes. These masked figures in red robes and plumed hats wander the town grabbing the arms and legs of onlookers with a hape-tchâr (flesh-snatcher, a pair of wooden tongs), refusing to let go until their victims kneel and ask for forgiveness: “Pardon, Haguète, à l’cawe du ramon, dju nu l’f’rès jamês pus!" (Forgive me, Haguète, I swear on the broomstick, I will never do it again!).
The Haguètes are burned on Shrove Tuesday, marking the end of the carnival and also the winter. Parking in the city centre is not possible during festival hours, however, free parking will be offered at Malmedy Expo (Frédéric Lang Street 3, 4960 Malmedy). See which streets the parades will pass in the city's programme (French only).
- 12pm: Announcement of the carnival's start by the 'Grosse Police' in different parts of the city.
- 2.45pm: Handing over the city keys.
- From 4.15pm: Folkloric parade starts from Albert Place.
- 1pm: Dance of the Haguètes in Albert Place.
- From 2pm: Parade of the carnival associations and the famous traditional masks leaves from Roman Place.
- 6.30pm: Musical performances of traditional carnival tunes at Albert Place.
- After the parade: massive street carnival (Bâne courante).
Shrove Monday (roleplaying day)
- From 11am: Procession of actors, and satirical shows on moving stages.
- Performances: 2pm – Roman Place and Rue Neuve; 4.30pm – Albert Place and Chemin-Rue.
Mardi Gras (Shrove Tuesday)
- From 2pm: Parade of the associations around the city.
- 7pm: Burning of the Haguète at Albert Place.
Carnival of Aalst: 6–9 February 2016
Aalst carnival is the prize in the Flemish carnival calendar with some 600 years, and is the only other Belgian carnival to be UNESCO-recognised as important cultural heritage, after Binche – although with a slight difference. Over three days of festivities, this carnival embodies a satirical and mocking spirit with processions of giant effigies, a broom dance and cross-dressing.
On the Saturday evening in the cultural centre De Werf, a humorous city council session in the local dialect (Oilsjters) takes place (6pm) where the 'city key' is given to the carnival prince and local politicians are mocked.
The carnival highlight is Sunday's parade (1pm) of floats with statues mocking local politicians, celebrities and events of the past year. Another parade is held on Monday (1.30pm) and ends with a broomstick dance by costumed Gilles in the Grote Markt (2pm) to ward off winter spirits. Onion-sized candies are then thrown from the balcony of the town hall (2.30pm), reflective of when the region had numerous onion farms. Some 'onions' include numbers that match with a prize – the most treasured being a golden onion, uniquely designed for each year's carnival. Awards are given out in the evening (8.30pm) for the local floats.
On Tuesday, the parade of the Dirty Jennies/Sissies (Stoet van de Voil Jeanetten) take over the Grote Markt (3pm): they’re local men dressed in women's clothing accessorised with corsets, prams and broken umbrellas, supposedly reflecting when the lower class couldn't afford proper costumes and wore their wives' things. Carnival parties continue all night, and dressing is a must to fit in.
The carnival ends with the burning of an effigy (9pm) in the Grote Markt-Vredeplein, among much whistling and shouting for another night of feasting, before the mood turns sombre in preparation for Lent the next day.
Eupen Carnival: 4–9 February 2016
Close to the German border, Eupen carnival kicks off the madness on Thursday with an Old Ladies procession; anyone wearing a tie might lose it to one of the ladies as a trophy. This tradition stems from when women couldn't take part in carnival activities in the 19th century, and in response created their own celebrations one day earlier. By Saturday evening, carnival entertainment is well underway around the city.
A children’s parade is held on Sunday (2.30pm), followed by the carnival's major parade that leaves from Werthplatz on Rosenmontag or Rose Monday (12.30pm), reflective of the tradition to throw paper roses along the parade route. Floats and costumed locals precede the Carnival Prince, who greets carnival visitors with the traditional greeting, "Alaaf!". On Tuesday, another children's procession (2.30pm) is held along a slightly different route plus entertainment, and the carnival ends when the prince returns the city keys to the town hall.
Knokke-Heist: 6–9 February 2016
For a carnival by the sea, Knokke-Heist appropriately kicks off its annual festival with a tribute to all fishermen and sailors lost at sea (Sunday 9.45am). The town then embarks on three days of fesitivities, the first event being a parade of giant puppets Pier and Wanne through the town centre (Sunday 2pm).
Monday is declared Sprotjesdag, in praise of the city’s bountiful sea, when cafes hand out free sprats (from 5pm), plus a 'mermaid' ball is held (from 5pm).
Tuesday kicks off with a costumed football game between the Plakkers (plasterers) and Vissers (fishermen), a tradition dating to 1928. The carnival ends in the evening with an illuminated, evening procession through the town centre (from 7.30pm).
Kids will also enjoy the free Kindercarnavalbal (zaal Ravelingen, 2–5pm) held on the Saturday.
Farther along the coast, Ostend also hosts a carnival parade on 6 February, followed by clog throwing (kloeffeworp) from the Beiaard Tower – including one golden clog.
Brussels: 6–14 February 2016
Although carnival celebrations are no longer held in the Belgian capital, the Museum of Fantastic Art offers the Carnival of the Witches of Tarkham (daily 2–5pm). Families can try a special witch’s brew that must be boiled and drunk in the four days before Shrove Tuesday.
Bonfire of Bouge, Namur: 14 Feburary 2016
On the first Sunday in Lent, Bouge celebrates the start of spring by burning the Bonhomme hiver (winter man). Le Grand Feu de Bouge is also known as Dimanche des (Sunday of) 'Brandons', 'Escouvillons' or 'Feûreû', coming from the bundles of straw and sticks that were used to hit fruit trees to make them fertile. Festivities begin with a parade in the morning (7.30am) and end with the bonfire and firewords (6.30pm).
Carnival of Arlon: 26–28 February 2016
The Arlon Carnival is a festival with historic roots that was revived in 1978. Since then, the carnival has gone through several evolutions and has drawn bigger crowds. Its current edition now features a Carnival prince, who is symbolically handed the town keys, and two princesses and their royal court. During Arlon's festivities, the prince officially presents his court to the public, who then joins them in three-day merriment that includes concerts, fireworks, parades and dances. You can read the programme (see 'cavalcade') for times and dates.
Carnival of Tournai: 4–6 March 2016
Since the foundation of Tournai Carnival in 1981, what has made this festival special is that it has changed yearly. This year’s theme is: ‘Envers et contre tout’ or ‘Above all and against all’.
Whatever the theme, however, several traditions remain in Tournai. Nuit des Intrigues kicks off the festivities on Friday night with a sound and light show. On Saturday, 'brotherhoods' formed mostly for the festival and floats travel around the city in a grand procession. At night, a masquerade and fancy ball is held at the Halle aux Draps. The following day, the brotherhoods visit Tournai’s various cafés to provide more entertainment (Le tour des cafés). Make time to wander and spot the town's statues that are also dressed up for carnival.
Children will enjoy the launch of balloons on Saturday at 5pm and the throwing of Pichous from the Belfry at 6pm. Pichous are sweet biscuits with candied fruit in the shape of a small naked boy, in reference to the naked boy of Saint-Piat neighbourhood. After the biscuits have been thrown, the 'Carnival King' is burned, while children dance around a bonfire to the sound of drums.
Carnival of Laetare (Stavelot): 5–7 March 2016
Laetare’s festivities are filled with fireworks, light shows, confetti and tons of fun. The festival celebrates its 514th year in 2016. It starts on Saturday with a night procession featuring intricate light shows and comedic performances. The carnival continues on Sunday with a grand parade of more than 2,000 local participants in costumes, playing instruments and riding floats. At night, the festival showcases one of the biggest firework shows in the region.
The Blanc Moussis are the traditional icons of this carnival. Clad in white and donning carrot-nosed masks, they parody the 15th-century monks who were forbidden from carnival after a time of excessive freedom and laziness. Appearing only on Sunday, the Blancs Moussis play practical jokes on the crowd, put up mocking posters, bop heads with dried pig bladders, dangle dried fish in people's faces and stuff confetti down bystanders shirts – all while making half-grunting, half-laughing sounds.
The carnival winds down on Monday with musical fanfare throughout the day and a closing ceremony at night.
- 8:30pm: Night procession of 'humour and light'.
- 10pm: Ball at the Stavelot Abbey (free entry into heated tent).
- 2pm: Grand parade through the town, finishing about two hours later at Place St-Remacle with the Rondeau des Blancs-Moussis (white-clad figures dancing in a circle).
- From afternoon until evening: Podiums at the Abbey, fanfare, and performances.
- 9pm: Fireworks show.
- 10pm: Nuit Blanche des Blancs-Moussis, in the cellars of the Abbey with music performances.
Monday, March 7, 2016
- 3pm: Folkloric and musical groups perform.
- Midnight: Awards ceremony at the Abbey.
Laetare Sunday (4th Sunday of Lent): 6 March 2016
The bear became the town's emblem based on a story that the 8th-century ruler, Charles Martel, supposedly killed a bear that was terrorising the town with a hammer when he was nine years old. It was also chosen as the mascot of the carnival when founded in 1954.
During the Andenne carnival, costume bears prance in and around a procession of floats and music, led by the giant bears Fonzi and Martin II (from 2pm). Watch imprudent girls risk being temporarily imprisoned, shaken and pushed in the dreaded 'maiden's cage'.
To the delight of children, at the end of the parade the Carnival King and Queen throw hundreds of tiny toy bears from the balcony of the town hall.
'Chinel' Carnival in Fosses-la-ville
Nearby on the same day, the Carnival in Fosses-la-ville leaves rue d'Orbey at 2pm showcasing colourful stiltwalkers, trench diggers covered in leaves and the traditional 'Chinels', who wear silk and satin bright costumes with two exaggerated horns on the front and back. You'll also see the town's traditional dances to the four 'tunes of Chinel'. The final rondeau is held at the market square around 6pm.
Nearby La Louviere wakes to the sound of drums as Gilles prepare for a day of parades, traditional dances and fireworks in the evening.
Quirky carnival figures
Some quirky characters you might see at carnival, typically Malmedy, include:
Pierrots: dressed in costumes (sometimes white or pastel colours) with large pointed hats, a white collar and black buttons. The pièrot typically hands out oranges or nuts. In Malmedy, when the pierrots' stash runs out, they fall onto the ground and children drag them back to their stocked cart singing: “Pove Pièrot qui n'a pus dès djèyes!” (Poor Pièrot has no more nuts!)
Peasants: blue and white clad, with ostrich feather hats.
Harlequins: geometric patterned suits and green hats.
Le Sotê: a dwarf that teases spectators with their long arms.
Le Boldjî: The 'baker', dressed in white with a baker’s cap, has hard salt pretzels stitched onto his clothes, a stuffed fat belly and thick cheeks. His uses a long paddle (typically for sliding bread out of the oven) to paw ladies’ rears as if they were warm, loaves of bread.
Le Longès-Brèsses: a clown with a top hat and long arms ruffles spectators' hair or grabs their hats and puts them on the heads of other people.
Le Long-Ramon: similar to the 'long arms' characters, instead they carry a long broomstick to lift hats or stroke the faces of spectators of guests watching from windows above.
Le Long-Né: The 'long-nose' masked men typically roam in groups, in a line, wearing blue smocks and red-white caps, with a clay pipe in their mouth. They hone in on certain spectators and follow and imitate them until the spectator gets nervous and pays a round of drinks.
L–R: Haguète, Long-Né, and Sâvadje Cayèt.
Sâvadje Cayèt: wear costumes of colourful shingles, rattling along the streets and affectionately hitting spectators' heads with a foam rubber club.
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