Carnival of Binche: oranges and popular involvement

From Spanish invaders to UNESCO: how the village-sized Binche came to mondial recognition. A story about oranges, drums and feudalistic-style title transmission.

According to the legend, the Carnival of Binche dates back to the 16th century, when Belgium was not Belgium yet, and the Spaniards were occupying the country. “Mas bravas que las fiestas de Bains“ (i.e. more amazing than the fetes of Binche), said Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire and totally amazed by the festivities organized for him in the fortified castle of Binche in 1549.

Nowadays Binche is a little and peaceful town of 33.000 inhabitants (Binchois). Its famous Carnival has however crossed the borders, to the point of being recognized by the UNESCO in 2003 as Intangible Cultural Heritage. This awarded the persistance of the Carnival of Binche throughout the centuries, and its deep rooting in the social life of the town. It’s a crucial period for every Binchois: they think of it the whole year, they speak of it months before, they work for it weeks long, and they finally live it during a couple of weeks in February. From now on and til the end of the article, please listen this playlist in the background, it’s a must-hear in order to better understand the craze.


Binche (Belgium) (via Wikipedia)

The six Sundays preceding Carnival are used for preparations: rehearsals, music practicing, dances and Trouille de Nouille drive up the senses of the Binchois until the climax itself: Dimanche-Gras, Lundi-Gras and Mardi-Gras (Fat Sunday, Monday, Tuesday). In 2009, you can still attend the following events: bal de la jeunesse catholique (a ball, 14th Feb.), Soumonce en musique (music practice, 15th Feb.), Trouilles de nouilles (mockery and jokes under the cover of a mask, 16th Feb.), Dimanche-gras, Lundi-gras and Mardi-gras (22-23-24th Feb.).

The Sunday belongs to the sociétés, i.e. a group of friends, colleagues or relatives bound to the same disguise: a cortege goes around the town, composed of sociétés and bands.

The Monday goes to the jeunesses: three major groups share the audience between their respective balls. Interstingly enough, these are the three same socio-political pillars structuring the political system in Belgium: the Catholic jeunesse, the liberal one and the socialist one. This day is for kids and youth people, and also a day of rest for their parents. Because at Mardi-Gras everyone should be in shape !

Tuesday (mardi in French) is the best moment of the year, according to the Binchois: the cherry on the cake, the core of the Carnival. You must know the famous Gilles, with their frightening masks and high hats made of ostrich feathers. Awake at 3 AM, they spend several hours taking on their costume and preparing their gear: clogs, traditional blouse with national Belgian colors, wicker basket… and oranges ! They are going to throw those golden fruits to the crowd ; do NEVER throw it back, it’s a present! (unless you want tot be “stoned” by loads of oranges)

The Gille is the most known character of the Carnival: the status of Gille is transmitted from father to son, and only to original inhabitants of the town. The Gilles are about 1000, forming the biggest proud of Binche. On Tuesday morning, they will wear the wax mask, which is now patented: its use production are forbidden outside of Binche. On Tuesday afternoon, the hat unfolds its majestic ostrich feathers: it weighs 3 kg and has to be firmly tied under the chin (its price and the required amount of handwork make the rain the greatest enemy of the Gille: the hat is wrapped up again at the first raindrop).


Why you should go to Binche during the Carnival

  1. It’s not a touristic attraction, it is a real local tradition without commercialisation. The Binchois love their Carnival and make it feel it. You will hardly find a tourist there, though the streets are crowded like hell during the whole week.
  2. Even though its size and audience are far less than many other, the Carnival of Binche is of great quality: the Gilles become professionals of folklore, every Binchois is a specialist of Carnival and most of the families have at least a Gille or a member of another société. The UNESCO recognized “its spontaneity and the substantial financial commitment of its participants”, “the precious craftsmanship and know-how associated with the carnival’s traditional costumes, accessories, dances and music”.
  3. Because it’s a lot of fun and because Belgian beer will flow (the best of the world 😉 ) !

(I welcome warmly any better translation for Mas bravas que las fiestas de Bains)

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