Carnaval De Binche: Who Are The Bizarre Masked Figures Celebrating Belgium’s Mardi Gras?

Binche's 'Gilles'
Binche's 'Gilles' | © hedhoodphoto / Flickr
Photo of Nana Van De Poel
3 January 2017

Forget the beads when in Belgium on Mardi Gras. The Walloon town of Binche celebrates the occasion in one of the quirkiest ways imaginable: by trotting out a parade of ‘Gilles.’ These clown-like figures in wax masks and vibrant outfits appear on Shrove Tuesday, the culmination of three days of carnival, to wave sticks at evil spirits and throw oranges into – or at – a folklore-adoring crowd.

By the time the Gilles arrive on Fat Tuesday, preparations have been underway for months. Costumes have been painstakingly sewn or restored by hand, extravagant headdresses out of ostrich feathers have been dusted off, and up to 1,000 local men and boys have rehearsed the strict playbook for weeks. Given that the roots of their tradition stretch all the way back to the 14th century, Binche’s inhabitants have the march of the Gilles down to a detailed art.

The march of the Gilles, carried out by a 1,000 proud locals | © hedhoodphoto/Flickr

After two days filled with confetti and music, the men portraying the Gilles get up in the middle of the night, along with their family and friends, to don elaborate traditional costumes and pad them with straw to achieve the typical boxy body of all Gilles. Once the dawn of the third day arrives, the figures assemble with the other members of their brotherhood to make their way to city hall together. During this time, they briefly become one big Gilles blob by putting on their mustachioed masks, meant to portray a member of the bourgeois during Napoleon III’s rule. The group becomes nearly identical, and just a little bit creepy. They wave around bundles of willow twigs that resemble brooms and occasionally throw one at a passerby they know to bless them with luck.

The Gilles in their wax masks with green goggles and fiery moustaches | © Marie-Claire/Wikimedia Commons

When all ten brotherhoods have arrived at City Hall, the mayor invites them inside for the medal ceremony. Particularly coveted is the medal that awards 75 years of being a Gilles. Getting to portray one of these traditional figures is a serious point of pride for local men, who pass down the honor to their sons or younger brothers. Ages range from as young as three to over 80; once you become a Gilles, you’re in it for life. Being a Gilles is an exclusively male occupation, though; daughters can only become one of three other characters in the carnival: pierrots, harlequins, or a peasant.

A happy Gilles waiving around his stick bundle to ward off evil spirits | © hedhoodphoto/Flickr

After the ceremony and a well-deserved lunch, the Gilles appear again around three in the afternoon. Anonymous masks have been swapped for towering feathered hats as they make their way across town to the beat of drums in the big parade, wicker baskets with oranges in hand. Locals have long ago learned to shield their windows from the flying orange menaces; the Gilles tend to throw their citrus with gusto. Catching one is supposed to be lucky, except when it lands on your head. Even then, don’t even think about hurling one back to the Gilles. The oranges are gifts – even if crudely delivered – and throwing them back is considered a grave insult.

Gilles young and old reaching for their oranges | © ines s./Flickr

The slow-moving Procession of the Oranges eventually comes to a stop on the Grand Place, where the Gilles, the band, and any willing spectator get merry by dancing around in a giant circle called a ‘rondeau.’ The Gilles will remain in their role and bulky costume long after the sun sets, an arduous task but one they are happy to fulfill. Don’t let the silly outfits fool you because, at Binche, carnival isn’t just an excuse for a party; it’s a time-honored tradition keenly looked forward to for an entire year, upheld and participated in by the whole community, and deeply steeped in this small town’s identity.

The next Carnaval de Binche will be held from Sunday 26th until Tuesday 28th of February 2017.

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