The Carnival of Binche is an event that takes place each year in the Belgian town of Binche, during the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday. The carnival is best known of all the others that take place in Belgium, at the same time and has been proclaimed as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Its history dates back to approximately the 14th century. This years carnival takes place between February 7th to the 9th.
The pre-Carnival festivities begin on Sunday, six weeks before shrove days. There are the drum rehearsals, then the programs with drums and finally the programs with music. These happen one of the first two Sundays so that all the societies do not rehearse on the same day. During the drum rehearsals, the societies listen to their own drums in their own meeting rooms and then they walk the streets to the rhythm of the drums and the bass drum. During the rehersals with percussions, the societies gather together in a café out of the city center and then they form in the center with accompaniment of the drums and the bass drums. The Gilles-to-be put their clogs on and wear their apertintaille (a belt with small bells). They dance and shake their to the rythm . For the rehersals with music, a brass orchestra joins the drums and the participants wear their Shrove Sunday Costumes, which they have already worn at a previous Carnival. Next to those festivities, some parties are organized by the younger participants or by the Shrove Monday Association, on Saturday night : the ball of Children, the ball of the Socialist Youth, the ball of the Liberal Youth and the ball of the Catholic Youth. Those balls are entertained by orchestras and people often wear costumes. The Monday before the Shrove Sunday, there is the night of the "Trouilles de Nouilles", during which some costumed and masked groups picks out a person without any costume – and preferably someone famous, in a café or in the streets of the city center, in order to make jokes to him or her.
Events related to the carnival begin up to 7 weeks prior to the primary celebrations. Street performances and public displays traditionally occur on the Sundays approaching Ash Wednesday, consisting of prescribed musical acts, dancing and marching. Large numbers of Binche's inhabitants spend the Sunday prior to Ash Wednesday in costume.
In Binche around thousand of Gilles can be seen on Shrove Tuesday. The Gille’s costume can only be worn for this special day. It is also forbidden to get out of the city with it, from this comes the saying “a Gille never leaves”. The costume is only for the man from Binche family or for the citizen leaving in Binche for at least 5 years. Strong rules are setting up to control the participation of the Carnival. A Folkloric defense association was created to promote and protect the tradition of Binche. The Gille costume is a tunic and trousers made of jute decorated with 150 patterns (stars, lions and crowns) in fine black felt fabric. When the Gille dresses up, the tunic is filled up with straw at the front and on the back there is a small bell. The belt he wears is woolen red and yellow. There is another belt with a cloth called “apertintaille” and adorned with copper bells. He also wears a collar with pleated lace rubbans or golden fringes, which can be attached around the neck. On his head, he wears a "barrette", a white cotton hat and a band of tissue that goes around the neck (pleated squares worn around the neck and laced on the head to keep the hat on) cover all of the costume wearers hair. During Shrove Tuesday’s afternoon procession, the Gille wears his ostrich feather hat. The Gille does not own the costume nor the hat. He rents them at the “louageur”, one who specializes in costumes and hat making and letting. On their feet, Gill will wear wooden clogs. Shrove Tuesday mornings, the Gille wears its famous mask to enter the city hall. Made by the Pourbaix workshop, it is made of wax, decorated with green glasses, a moustache and a tiny goatee and side whiskers. In 1985, Binche registered with the European Patent office to have the exclusive rights: The mask can only be worn in Binche and sell to Gille from their society. On Tuesday morning and during the practices with drums, the Gille holds a ramon in his hands. Once a broom, the ramon is composed of sticks of dry sallow put together with sinew rattan. The Gille moves to the rhythm with the ramon and the baskets (held on Shrove’s Tuesday afternoon).
The society of the Peasants, comes from the Collège Notre-Dame de Bon Secours of Binche. The Peasant wears a soberer costume than the Gille : a blue smock decorated with white sleeves, white pants, slim shoes decorated with wrinkled ribbons, white gloves and a different ramon than the Gille. The Peasant generally wears a hat decorated with 2 white ostrich feathers and long white ribbons. He also wears a “barrette” as well as a large square white piece of cloth under the chin. Finally the Peasants wear a mask that looks like the mask of the Gille but without the moustache and the beard.
The society of the Arlequins (Harlequin), comes from the Royal Athenee of Binche. They can be either girls or boys.
The Arlequins are inspired by the Comedia Dell’Arte. They wear a shirt and pants made of cloth printed with yellow, red and green triangles, and a black belt. Their felt hats are green, with a black and grey fur tail at the end of them. They wear the half-mask of Arlecchino with a fur border. They hold a bat in their hand which is decorated with colorful ribbons.
The society of the Pierrots, comes from the Petit Collège of Binche. They can be either girls or boys. The Pierrots are inspired by the Comedia Dell’Arte. They wear a conical hat, decorated with lace and a white ribbon on the top. They wear a shirt and pants of the same color : pink, blue or yellow. Their masks depict a black wolf and they hold a stick in their hands decorated with colorful ribbons.
The Gille's Wife
Raised in the Carnivals overwhelming atmosphere, the inhabitants of Binche are devoted participants, from costumed characters to musicians or to the Gilles wives. Their commitment is felt as natural and spontaneous at whatever their parts are in the festivities. Most of the time, the Gille’s wife is kept in the shadows of the Binche "hero". The Gille wives are an essential part; from private to public life. In the earliest beginnings of the festivities, the Gille wife is a crutial part, taking care of everything leading up to the carnivals festivities and everything leading up to the Carnival itself. Not a spectator or an actress, it is during the ceremony that the Gille’s wife does both the obvious and ungrateful parts. However, for the Gille’s wife the show does not stop after the carnival, as it stops for the spectators or the Gille. She still has to take care of the chores back home like preparing meals, looking after the costumes or redoing the childrens make-up and taking care of anything else that needs to done around the house. Finally, it is her leading part to educate the children. It is all of this that makes the Gille’s wife a central and essential role in the society of Binche. Their duties are seen as a crucial part, since they are the ones to raise the children in the tradition of Binche. They are the ones to teach them the dances, what is permitted and what is not during the Carnival, the dressing-up ceremonial of Gille and most of all - the love for Binche traditions and its carnival rituals. Their goal is to get an unconditional and natural participation from the children.
Every Society has to take care of their members, the Gilles, the Peasants, the Pierrots and the Arlequins (Harlequins). They must hire drum groups, musicians, and organize all the logistics linked to the getting everyone to and in the event. Every Society is headed up by a committee that has a president, vice-president, secretary and a treasurer. Each Society has 3 or 4 commissioners who are linked to each Society. Those commissioners are representatives for the Association for the Defense of Folklore, they wear a domino (black satin dress), and they must keep everything together within the Society and make sure that everybody respects the timetable for the scheduled events and meetings. Participation in the Carnival is expensive for the Gille and their families (fees to the Society, renting the Shrove Monday costume, making the Shrove Sunday costume, and all the costs of the meals and the parties).
Every society has its own drums. A drum group consists 6 or 7 people, plus a bass drum player and a bass drum carrier. All the drums play the same melodies in the rhythm of the “ra” and the “fla” but every group has its own way of playing. In Binche, the Gille never walk without a tambour (musician/drum group) which gives it the rhythm to his dance. During the different parts of music and dancing, during the afternoon processions, the drums are accompanied by a brass orchestra. There is 26 Gilles melodies in Binche : Air classique des Gilles - Lion de Belgique - Le postillon de Longjumeau – Le Sans souci - Le petit jeune homme de Binche - L’ambulant - Vivent les Bleus - Paysan s’en va - Eloi à Charleroi – Cavalcade - Le juif errant - La classe – Sérénade - Pas de charge - Mère tant pis - Vos arez in aubade – Arlequin - Les d’gins de l’Estène - El doudou - Quand m’grand-mère - Les chasseurs - Trompette des cent gardes - Les marins - Les brigands - Polka marche and Aubade matinale, and are only played Shrove Tuesday morning until the daybreak. The viola is another typical instrument of the folklore of Binche, and it accompanies children a on Shrove Tuesday but also small groups on Shrove Sunday morning. The viola is a transportable barrel organ, which works by a keyboard and bellows, which in turn works with a cylinder that is moved by a handle, called “manique”. The viola player is called a "Le manniqueu".
They are 13 Carnival Societies in Binche :
Royal Society les Récalcitrants
Royal Society Les Petits Gilles
Royal Society Les Indépendants
Royal Society Les Paysans
Royal Society Les Pierrots
Royal Society Les Réguénaires
Royal Society Les Maxim’s
Royal Society Les Supporters
Royal Society Les Incas
Society Les Arlequins
Society Les Incorruptibles
Society Les Jeunes Indépendants
Society Les Arpeyants
On Shrove Monday, the feast is a traditional, more private gathering of locals. To the tune of the viols and the hurdy-gurdies, they all go from pub to pub, and from pub to friends and neighbors houses, as they get ready to invite the voil, who are dancing in the streets.
At about 3 p.m. the children gather, just like the adults had done the day before. The younger ones dance to the music of the drums and brass bands. They then convene in the Town Square, they all dance to the "rondeau de l'amite." Then after hours of dancing and singing until about 8 p.m., they leave to enjoy fireworks at the stationing area.