Just before the first spring flowers pop out of the snow and before Lent, the 40-day fasting period before Easter, something colorful and outrageous happens in villages and towns across Belgium. It’s carnival time and people come together to celebrate in excess, just as later on they used to congregate to celebrate in fasting and penance.
While the fasting and penance part is on the wane, the explosion of joy and excess of the carnival is alive and well. The carnival of Binche, a town of about 35000 inhabitants in the South-West of Belgium, is the best-known and the oldest in the country. The first written record of the event dates back to 1394.
People from all over Belgium and beyond come to witness one of the oldest surviving street carnivals in Europe. Hardly anything about the dress, rituals and customs have changed since the 14th century, prompting UNESCO to list the Carnival of Binche as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Celebrations start on Sunday and culminate on Shrove Tuesday (or Mardi Gras), just before Lent. The main characters of the event are les Gilles, with their tall hats with ostrich feathers, wooden footwear, wax masks and colorful costumes. The outfit features a linen suit with red, yellow, and black heraldic designs (the colours of the Belgian flag), trimmed with large white cuffs and collars. The suit is usually stuffed with straw, giving the Gille a hunched back.
Other characters, such as the Paysans and Paysannes, Harlequins and Pierrots, join in as the procession unfolds through the town.
They all throw oranges that the crowds try to catch in flight. Oranges fly in all directions and you really need to keep your eyes open and duck every now and then. The procession leaves behind hundreds of squashed oranges.
Here’s me, proud of having caught one while holding my camera in the other hand.
The celebration continues long into the night, after the Gilles have come out of their heavy costumes, after the big fire in the main square has raised its flames over the tipsy heads of the villagers and has consumed every last bit of winter wood.