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The Art of … Folklore

Folklore is understood to be a group of oral traditions and knowledge on a variety of subjects held by a particular group, typically passed from person to person by word of mouth. Merriam-Webster defines it as traditional customs, tales, sayings, dances, or art forms preserved among a people – giving particular attention to the word preserve. Because that is what it’s all about: tales, lore (learning, knowledge), oral history, mythology, fables, traditions … myths … costumes, art, music ….

Where I was born, in Belgium, there is a rich cultural heritage. I could go on and on about our customs and traditions, starting with the world’s best French fries served in their pointy paper bags (they are actually not French but originated in Belgium – a widely disputed fact among the French of course 😉 but quite well explained in a National Geographic article.) to the popular celebrations during Easter week. Belgian carnival is steeped in history and folklore, with several celebrations dating more than 500 years, one of the most famous ones being the one in the town of Binche.

Gilles - CC Wikimedia Commons

Other cities, such as La Louvière, have a tradition of Gilles at the carnival as well, with high participation of the people. Right here, the word folklore comes to mind. (while in Greek the meaning of the name Gilles is: Shieldbearer, the Gilles does not wear a shield) Unlike their neighbors to the North, whose carnival celebrations finish before Ash Wednesday, the starting day of Lent, the Belgian carnival season extends until mid-Lent in March. The Gilles, grouped in societies, are the oldest and leading participants in the Carnival of Binche. They go out on Shrove Tuesday the day before Ash Wednesday. Though named for its former religious significance, it is chiefly marked by feasting and celebration, which traditionally preceded the observance of the Lenten fast ( remember: They go out on Shrove Tuesday from 4 am until late hours and dance to traditional songs.) I urge you to check the Gilles’ day outline @ You’ll see, tradition sided by fun, dance, and the occasional drink. As you’ll notice, it starts with nothing less than bubbly. The good stuff. Nothing but the best for the participants.

The origins of the Carnival of Binche are still unclear, and many historians have tried to uncover them… without, to this day, much success.

Gilles de Binche - CC Wikimedia Commons

The Gilles’ costume is quite unique: a tunic and trousers made of jute decorated with 150 patterns (stars, lions, and crowns) in beautiful black felt fabric. When the Gilles dresses up, the tunic is filled up with straw at the front and the back with a small bell. At the waist, he wears a woolen red, and yellow belt mounted with a cloth called “apertintaille” full of copper bells. A collar with pleated lace ribbons or golden fringes which can be attached around the neck on the bumps.₁ Check out their website for a more precise description of their costume. Because there is much more.

I have especially fond memories of the carnival. My most explicit memory being the Gilles walking and dancing to the sound of the drum and traditional songs. Later during the day, they don large hats adorned with ostrich plumes and march through the town with baskets of oranges.

Copyright Miguel Discart/Flickr

They throw these oranges to – or at 😉😉😉 people, and unfortunately, the orange throwing event has caused damage to property in the past. The oranges are considered a good omen, and it is an insult to throw them back.

The Carnival of Binche is a living and exceptional heritage, a popular, human and social event. Beautiful and multicolored in all its grandeur. It has been recognized as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO in 2003, and I can only encourage you –should you travel to Belgium during February—to attend. If you prefer to avoid the crowds Binche draws, the carnival celebration of La Louviere is quite impressive too … Not as big as Binche, the idea and principals remain the same. If I remember correctly, they are present in the city of Mons also. And I am pretty sure there must be other cities …. It’s just been a long time since I was over there … One tends to forget … 😉

Until next time peoples of the page. Do not forget to spring forward and to enjoy the rest of your weekend. Namaste. (La Louviere)

History - carnaval de Binche.

The best travelguide of the Binche Festival:




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