Carnival is the oldest, largest party in the world, celebrated in more than 50 countries. Ironically, this pagan tradition was preserved by the Roman Catholic church.
Its origins are traced back 5,000 years to ancient Egypt and Greece, which celebrated cycles of nature and the universe (think spring equinox). “Carnival” endured for centuries until Roman Catholics converted it to an annual blow-out before Lent, a time of fasting and sacrifice. (The etymology of “carnival” – carnelevarium in Latin – is traced to carnis (meat) and levare (“to lift.”)
The backstory is that in ancient Greece, a dramatic spring festival called Dionysia was held to honor Dionysis, the god of wine. The Romans adopted it more decadently as Bacchanalia. They believed that evil spirits appearing in winter had to be driven out for spring and a new harvest to return. What an excuse to party! A feast was included to “fatten people up” before food became scarce towards the end of winter (plus meat and dairy products needed to be eaten before warmer temperatures spoiled them). The feast was intended to sustain people until the next harvest. Catholics later dubbed it Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) in French, the day before the beginning of Lent (Ash Wednesday).
During the 40 liturgical days of Lent, Roman Catholics traditionally abstained from meat, alcohol and other pleasures. So, they went overboard indulging in them beforehand. (Why do you think the Roman Empire spread so easily?) It seems that the preservation of carnival made conversion of pagans to Catholicism easier. Instead of forcing them to give up their raucous parties, “reformers” let them continue with a Christian twist (repent during Lent), even after conversion. That’s why carnival is still celebrated today in western countries with large Catholic populations, even though it is now considered European folk culture.
Take Belgium, for example. It’s 60 percent Catholic nowadays and hosts two of the world’s best (but least known) carnivals in the villages of Aalst (Flanders) and Binche (Wallonia). Both are recognized by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage – another excuse to party. In Belgium, A + B = C as in Aalst plus Binche equals carnival.
Carnival usually occurs mid-February to early March, a period before Lent known as Shrovetide. It typically involves public parades and street parties with people masking themselves in outlandish costumes to buck rules and norms. It may also include social and political satire, mocking of authorities, exaggeration of body parts (i.e., large noses, bellies and mouths) and food fights. Between the two, Aalst and Binche carnivals have it all.
First, Belgians are into throwing things. If you see a flying onion or orange this time of year, you know you’re in either Aalst or Binche. Both have annual three-day celebrations over Shrove Sunday, Monday and Tuesday (except this year).
The Aalst Carnival is more than 600 years old in keeping with its pagan past. Most participants (70%) are local residents, who take it very seriously with the support of the Aalst City Council. It begins with the mayor handing over “keys to the village” to the Aalst Carnival Prince, who turns it upside down in revelry. This is followed by a procession of giant puppets and an immortal horse that supposedly belonged to Charlemagne.
Float-makers work all year to compete in the Shrove Sunday parade, a tradition of nearly 100 years. This all-day, surrealistic, satirical parade (floats often poke fun at politicians) makes its way through the entire village, ending with an all-night party. Hungover, locals participate in a broom dance and onion throw the next day. By Tuesday, they are so messed up that the men dress up in women’s clothing and throw flour. (Instead of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” it’s the broom, the onion and the cross-dressing.)
Costumed “gilles” of Aalst perform the broom dance to chase away the evil spirits of winter. They throw tiny brooms to onlookers who try to catch them for good luck. The gilles also hand out oranges as an offering to God for a good harvest.
The Aalst Carnival mascot is an onion because the village is surrounded by onion fields. In addition, the Flemish way of saying “oh yes” sounds like “ah join”, which is phonetically similar to its word for onion. Not only are there onion costumes, floats and decorations, but an Aalst Onion Throwing Competition during which the Carnival Prince and committee members throw 1,000 onions from the balcony of city hall. Around 100 contain prizes and one is made of 18-carat gold embedded with expensive jewels.
The “Parade of the Dirty Sissies” features the cross-dressing men. It was inspired by the lower class who were too poor to buy carnival costumes and wore their wives’ clothing instead. This tradition is followed by the burning of a giant puppet, which is blamed for all carnival sins and burned as punishment. And that’s Aalst there is.
Now take a seat on the Binche … this carnival stems from a long oral tradition of pagan costumes and customs. Since it was unwritten, its exact history is unknown but some speculate it was related to a parade organized by Mary of Hungary for her brother Charles Quint in 1549. She lived in a castle that has ruins in the center of Binche.
Here again, gilles take center stage with whimsical costumes. Around 1,000 men and boys wear straw-stuffed linen suits with colors of the Belgian flag (red, yellow and black) trimmed with white-lace cuffs and collars. Their shoes are wooden clogs and bells are attached to their belts. Some also wear large, white feather hats. (On the morning of Shrove Tuesday only, they don bizarre masks as well.) The gilles carry bunches of twigs and baskets of blood oranges.
On Shrove Sunday, the gilles parade with drummers, peasants (teens), pierrots (boys) and harlequins (girls) while throwing oranges to and at onlookers. In the evening, paraders dance in circles around red fires to music and fireworks. Shrove Monday features youth, violas, a huge confetti battle and similar nighttime events. On Shrove Tuesday, the whole village wakes up before 4 am to bring their carnival characters to life. This is the only moment when gilles wear masks. At 7 am, there is a champagne and oyster breakfast followed by dancing in the street with gilles clapping their wooden shoes against cobblestones to drive winter away. Parading, orange-throwing, fire dancing and fireworks repeat and then the village falls silent again for a year.
Blood oranges are appropriate as careless onlookers sometimes get hit by them (think “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”)! In fact, children in the parade can be malicious, targeting the unobservant. But if you catch an orange, you will have good luck the rest of the year.
« Watch out! » I said to my buddy Francisco, who narrowly missed getting a black eye from an orange. « It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye!
“It was that kid there!” my tall, Spanish friend said, ready to “squeeze” the juice of out him.
Thankfully, we were standing under an umbrella due to rain, which blocked some of the flying oranges. Even better, we caught a few. And flavored shots of peket (Belgian eau de vie) — also a big part of this carnival — kept us warm.
The day of revelry culminated with parade characters dancing in circles around fires to music in front of Binche City Hall. Shadows of dancers flickered on buildings as fireworks rained in the rain. We concluded that whether Catholic or not, “paganism” sure is fun!
 European colonists introduced carnival to the Americas, which added their own colorful traditions (think Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans, and Trinidad and Tobago), not the other way around.