The Gilles are alive
First there is the sound – the rhythmic, hypnotic stamping of clogs on cobbled stones, accompanied by the jangle of brass bells on belts and the beating of drums – then the visual panorama of colour and movement as the Gilles perform their ritual carnival dance. It’s a folkloric tradition that has been played out within the walls of the medieval town of Binche for hundreds of years.
About 1,000 revellers supported by family and friends join in the rite, from the cadenced shuffle to the pelting of oranges, making this the oldest and most authentic carnival celebration in Belgium. As preserved as the town’s 12th-century ramparts, the carnival of Binche and its party-loving inhabitants have gained worldwide fame.
According to local legend, it started during Spanish rule in the 16th century as entertainment for Roman Empire leader Charles V. As a Christian celebration marking the beginning of Lent, and a symbol of renewal and fertility after the long dark winter, an earlier date is feasible. The town’s 19th-century prosperity was responsible for today’s version of the festivities and the opulence of its costumes, leading UNESCO to grant it special heritage status in 2003. The town of Binche is now defined by its carnival customs. Lying deep in a former industrial wasteland, scarred by slagheaps, the small community of just over 30,000 people is economically reliant on the event. Until the 1970s, the town specialised in leather and luxury goods and was particularly skilled in making men’s suits.
The event is deeply rooted in the social fabric of the town. Most families in the tight-knit community can count at least one highly honoured Gilles or member of one of the 13 sociétés that make up the procession and festivities. This membership is likened to a virus, which may explain the commitment and financial cost of being a Gilles – the elaborate costumes need to be rented every year and even the festival’s traditional songs say that, come Carnival, the town’s young men spend their year’s earnings in less than a week.
Preparations are a year-round affair leading to an intense rehearsal period six Sundays before the three-day Mardi Gras, the dates of which are determined by Easter and the period of Lent. These public practice sessions for the drummers and musicians are followed by soumonces, when they are joined by brass instruments and perform in local cafés. Society members dress up in costume and the full Gilles repertoire of 26 songs resonates throughout the town.
This warming-up period is but a prelude to the celebrations, which kick off on the Saturday before Carnival with three costumed balls for the town’s youngsters: Catholic, liberal and socialist, representing the pillars of Belgian political and social life. They are followed on Monday by the Trouilles de nouilles, when mysterious masked revellers invade the town to inflict their wit in return for beer. Finally, after weeks of mounting madness, it’s time for the three Gras days. Sunday is colourful, starting with the future Gilles parading in fantasy costume, plus a spot of cross-dressing with men disguised as women, or Mam’zèlles. Monday is for the children, traditionally a day for locals to catch their breath away from the gaze of tourists.
On Tuesday, it is the turn of the Gilles, the carnival kings who tradition dictates must be male and Binche-born. Early before dawn, it’s the role of the women in their family to ritually and proudly dress them in the linen shirts and trousers, stuffed back and front with straw and adorned with about 200 motifs in the Belgian colours – typically, these are crowned lions and stars. The red and yellow belt is emblazoned with bells, wooden clogs adorn their feet and they are armed with a sheath of twigs, a symbol of the Gilles’ agricultural roots.
Finally, the drummer rounds up the Gilles from their homes. Strict rules apply and flouting them can bring a lifetime ban from the brotherhood: they must always be accompanied by a drummer and cannot step outside the city walls, travel in a car, kiss their wives, smoke or use a mobile phone. Another convention is the quaffing of champagne from daybreak, usually accompanied by oysters, until the end of the festivities.
For the first few hours, they wear eerie wax masks adorned with signature green spectacles and curling ginger whiskers. The masks, artisan-made and patented, symbolise equality and anonymity. They are cast aside later in the day to be replaced by the ornate and towering ostrich-feather headdresses. And then battle commences as the orange-hurling ensues and the merrymaking persists late into the night, beyond the dazzling explosion of fireworks, forever to the rhythm of the beating drum.
This article was first published in WAB Magazine