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Carnivals by Ginny Suter

Ginny wrote numerous articles for Plug-In Belgium and Internationals in Belgium in the late 1990s early 2000's and presented a weekly radio programme for a local radio station in the Brussels Waterloo area.

Throughout history, carnivals have been held to celebrate the end of winter and to announce the beginning of spring. Originally a pagan affair, the first recorded carnival dates back to Babylon in 2000 BC. It was a pagan ritual with masks to blast away evil spirits and blast the last of winter supplies. The name Carnival has a Latin origin, meaning 'good-bye to meat' and, as with many pagan festivals, the winter carnival was incorporated by the early Christians into their calendar. The celebrations start a few days before Lent, which is the Christian six weeks of reflection and self denial before Easter Sunday.

The event, generally held on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday - the beginning of Lent - is known throughout the world. It's famous in Rio de Janeiro, in New Orleans - where Mardi Gras is the big event of the year, Venice - famous for its masked ball - and in the Rhineland area of Germany.

Throughout Belgium - but these are especially interesting.

There are many Carnivals held in Belgium during this period, based not only on Mardi Gras but on local customs and beliefs, rich in folklore. The most famous is that held at Binche, 30 minutes drive south of Waterloo, a three day event which entails some six weeks of rehearsals. It dates back to 1549, at the time of Spanish rule, when Mary of Hungary welcomed her brother Charles Quint and his son Philip II of Spain to a memorable reception at the Palace of Binche - now in ruins - close to the town centre. Originally the Binche carnival commemorated the Spanish conquest of the Incas in Peru. The Incas were described then as 'having feathers on their heads, stamping their feet and wearing clothes of straw, like grass skirts'. As there were no cameras to record this, the costumes worn by the Gilles, bear little resemblance to the South American Indians and copy a little of the clothes then worn by the Spanish court.

The marchers are called 'Gilles' as this was a popular Spanish name at the time. The Gilles are all local men - no women are allowed in the procession - who wear magnificent head dresses of ostrich feathers. It's a highly colourful event, with the Gilles' straw padded costumes of red and gold, with bells hanging from their belts, being something to behold. They parade through the town, throwing oranges at the crowd.

The climax to the fun is on Mardi Gras, February 24 this year, when happenings begin at 4.0 am but there are activities throughout the day, climaxing in the procession and firework display starting at 7.0 pm.

Stavelot, close to Spa, features the 'Blanc Moussis' - with their long, carrot like noses and white cloaks and hoods, is a humorous procession with floats. Nobody escapes being hit over the head by a pig's bladder, ticked by a smelly herring or smothered in confetti. Telephone 080 882339 or 882343 for programme details. Nearby Malmédy also features similar fun and details can be obtained from telephoning 080 330250. .

The biggest, most famous carnival in Flanders is at Aalst, which has a procession starting at 1.0 pm on February 22 - continuing through to 7.0 pm. The main parade is Mardi Gras, starting at 3.0 pm and running until 11.0 pm

At Knokke-Heist there is a 40-float carnival. Telephone 050 630380 for more details. While over at Ostende there is the centennial Dead Rat Ball, an international celebration held in the Casino on March 7. Founded by artist James Ensor and friends, it was inspired by an evening they spent in Paris' Montmartre, and is billed as the most 'famous ball on the west coast of Europe'. It's a charity, masked ball, organised by the Royale Cercle Coecilia. Telephone 059 701199 or Fax 059 703477 for tickets.

©Ginny Suter - 1998

Original article appearing in "Internationals in Belgium" Dick Suter was an editor of the magazine and contributor and Ginny Suter was a regular contributor in the late 1990's and 2000's - The magazine had a circulation of 10,000 Please note that this article was first published many years ago and telephone and fax numbers are likely to be out of date and email addresses have been removed.

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