Carnival in Belgium: a tradition dating back to the 14th century
Over the next few days, various carnival parades will take place in Belgian towns and cities, the most famous of which are in Aalst and Binche. It’s an ancient tradition in Belgium, dating back to the 14th century in Burgundy.
Carnival was originally a pagan festival. In the Christian tradition, it falls on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before the 40 days of Lent begin. The Dutch and Germans also celebrate carnival. In the Netherlands, it’s mainly celebrated in the south and parts of the east. In Germany, the predominantly Catholic Rhineland celebrates carnival extravagantly.
The first traces of carnival in Belgium date back to the 14th century. At that time, the Burgundian carnival was celebrated in Hainaut. But the prosperous towns of the Duchy of Brabant and the County of Flanders also celebrated during the period of the Burgundian Netherlands. These festivities were fancy-dress parties where people made fun of each other.
Due to the great poverty that prevailed in Brabant from the end of the Eighty Years' War – the period during which the region that now makes up most of Belgium and the Netherlands rebelled against the Spanish occupiers – until after the Second World War, the traditional festival was characterised by seemingly simple costumes.
Carnival parades began in the middle of the 19th century. On Sunday 9 March 1851, the first carnival parade took place through the streets of Aalst. However, it was not recognised because it was not an officially organised parade.
It was not until 1923 that an organised parade was held in Aalst. The oldest official modern carnival parade in Flanders is the Half-Fast Parade of Maaseik in Limburg, which dates back to 1865.
Nevertheless, the carnival in Aalst remains the largest carnival event in Flanders. More than 70 local groups participate in the parade on Sunday each year, with a different regional, national or international theme, which they mock with their floats. On Tuesday, there is a Voil-Jeanetten parade: men dressed in women's clothes with prams and broken umbrellas dominate the streets.
In 2010, the Aalst Carnival was added to the UNESCO list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. However, following a controversy over a float featuring stereotypes of Jewish people, the event was removed from the list in 2019.
In Wallonia, Binche is the city of the carnival. The Gilles and their traditional white feathered costumes are world-famous. In 2003, they were included in the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
If you want to see one of the famous carnival parades, you know where to go in the next few days. Because from Sunday 11 to Tuesday 13 February, it's party time in Aalst and Binche.
Illustration picture shows the Zondagstoet of the 93rd edition of Aalst carnival, Sunday 19 February 2023. © BELGA PHOTO NICOLAS MAETERLINCK