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Home News Carnival in Belgium

Carnival in Belgium

Published on 04/02/2016

Before the Lenten season begins in February, Belgians take part in the worldwide tradition of carnival.

Every year, floats, bands and costumed revelers fill the streets to welcome the festival season with a blur of colour, music and dance — reflecting the historic practice of engaging in frolic before the penitential season begins.

Unlike their Dutch neighbours who celebrate carnival before Ash Wednesday in February, however, the Belgians’ festival season extends until the first week of March.

If you want to partake in the frivolities, here are the top carnival celebrations in Belgium:

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 feast takes place in the small, quiet French border town of Binche.

Residents and visitors alike participate in events to drive evil spirits away starting on Sunday with a procession, then on Monday with a music event. The folkloric event culminates on Shrove Tuesday when about 1,000 local men transform into a clown-like character called Gilles. Wearing identical wax masks, wooden clogs and medieval stuffed black, red and yellow straw costumes, the performers  gather at the town’s Grand Palace to perform a dance with brooms and ‘sweep evil spirits away’.

In mid-afternoon, the Gilles shed their masks in exchange for hate adorned with huge white ostrich plumes. They sing and dance in the middle of busy streets and, armed with baskets of blood oranges, pelt the crowd with the fruits — a symbol of fertility and the coming spring. Bystanders are considered lucky if they get hit by the oranges.

Carnival of Malmedy: 6–9 February 2016

The Cwarmê 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.

Shrove Saturday signals the start of Cwarmê and the mayor presents the trouv’lê, a figure wearing a top hat and clad in fiery red, with a seed scoop, signifying that he  has the keys to the town until Tuesday evening. The next day, known as Dimance Gras, is famous for its large parade and a dance feature the principal characters of Cwarmê — the Haguètes, masked figures in red robes and plumed hats who fleet around town ‘capturing’ people with wooden catchpoles to demand ‘forgiveness’ and ‘force’ them to bend the knee. The Haguètes are burned on Shrove Tuesday, marking the end of the carnival and also, the winter.

Carnival of Arlon: 26–28 February 2016

The Aarlen Carnival is a festival with historic and 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 and two princesses and their royal court. During the festivities, the prince officially presents his court to the public, who then joins them in three-day merriment that includes concerts, fireworks and dances.

Carnival of Tournai: 4–6 March 2016

Tournai hosts one of the most popular and unique annual carnivals in Belgium. Dating back to 1981, the most special feature of this festival is the fact that it changes yearly. This year’s theme is: ‘Envers et contre tout’ or ‘Above all and against all’.

Whatever the theme is, however, several traditions remain. Nuit des Intrigues kicks off the festivities with a sound a light show while brotherhoods, formed mostly for the festival, and floats travel around the city on Saturday. The following day, the brotherhoods then visit Tournai’s various cafés to provide more entertainment. 

Carnival of Laetare (Stavelot): 5–7 March 2016

Laetare’s festivities are filled with fireworks, light shows and tons of fun. It starts on Saturday with a night procession featuring intricate light shows and comedic performances. The carnival continues of Sunday with the Grand Parade comprising of 2,200 participants in costumes, playing instruments and riding floats. At night, the festival showcases one of the biggest firework shows in the region. The whole city becomes filled with fanfare throughout the day and night until Monday.