The town of Binche is situated south of Brussels in Belgium’s Hainaut province. Each year, during the three days preceding Lent, it is host to carnival festivities that mobilize the historic centre and attract throngs of foreign visitors. With roots dating back to the Middle Ages, Binche’s famed celebration ranks as one of Europe’s oldest surviving street carnivals.
Since the beginning of January, an atmosphere of merry industriousness pervades the town as thousands of Binchois produce lavish costumes and participate in drum rehearsals and themed balls. On Shrove Sunday, which marks the official beginning of the carnival, Binche’s streets and cafés come alive with roving hordes of masqueraded merrymakers.
The Mam’selles, men dressed in extravagant female attire, are particularly prominent on this day. The carnival culminates on Mardi Gras, when the legendary Gille characters make their appearance. After an elaborate ceremonial dressing rite, several hundred Gilles sporting red, yellow and black costumes, replete with ostrich-feather hats, wooden clogs, bells and wax masks with small spectacles, parade through the town to the beat of the drum.
Pierrots, harlequins and peasants follow the processions, intermingling with costumed revellers and local brass and clarinet bands. Dancers, stirred by traditional tunes played on the viola and drum, perform an assortment of steps including the perennial favourite, fittingly called the pas de Gille. The day’s events reach a climax with the Gilles’ dancing in the Grand Place under fireworks.
The carnival of Binche is a genuinely popular festival renowned for its spontaneity and the substantial financial commitment of its participants. The townspeople take great pride in the celebration and strive to preserve the precious craftsmanship and know-how associated with the carnival’s traditional costumes, accessories, dances and music.