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Carnival town Binche laments the loss of its cancelled folklore parades
It’s Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday in Belgium today and many towns around the country are mourning the absence of their traditional carnival festivities.
Already disrupted last year because of Covid-19, this is the first year since World War Two that the popular folklore parades have had to be cancelled.
The medieval-walled town of Binche in Wallonia hosts one of Europe’s oldest carnival celebrations. Dating from the 14th century, it has been recognised since 2003 as a masterpiece of cultural heritage.
Every year, during the three days preceding Lent, the whole town is gripped by carnival fever and visitors flock from around the world to join in the merrymaking.
The pinnacle is Tuesday’s Mardi Gras procession of more than 900 Gilles, a select brotherhood of men dressed in black, yellow and red heralded costumes, their faces adorned with eerily-painted wax masks. The white hoods and capes atop their heads are later swapped for rare ostrich-plumed headgear when they pelt onlookers with oranges.
Today, instead of the colourful spectacle and mesmerising beat of drums, Binche is marking the event’s absence by showing off some of the carnival’s unique paraphernalia.
Residents have been invited to place yellow mimosa flowers – the carnival symbol – in their windows and to wear Gilles face masks. Large wooden models of the carnival’s symbolic figures grace the cobbled main square and other sites in the town.
The cancellation also has serious economic implications for the Hainaut town. In addition to the lack of tourism revenue, local artisans are suffering as their business has dried up. They are responsible for crafting many of the carnival creations, from elaborate costumes to masks, clogs and feathered headgear.
A solidarity fund has been set up by Binche’s folklore association to help them weather the crisis. “Every Binchois has the carnival in his heart. Without its artisans… there would be no tradition,” its president Daniel Pourbaix told RTBF.
He added: “The atmosphere is going to be a little sad because we will of course have sadness in our hearts not to see our Gilles, our harlequins, our pierrots pounding the pavement of the city.”
But Pourbaix is optimistic about its return next year. “Above all, the tradition must remain in our hearts so that next year, Carnival 2022 will be a carnival of rebirth.”
Visitors are being encouraged to visit the town's museum dedicated to the unique carnival, which remains open with safety measures in place.
Photo: Belga © Eric Lalmand