Join the party
This weekend, the official carnival season kicks off, and with it the classic festivities in Aalst. For five years, carnival has been an official part of Flanders’ cultural heritage, and the folklore of Aalst even made it on to Unesco’s World Heritage list in 2010. These traditions are protected by the umbrella organisation FEN-Vlaanderen, which strives to conserve such customs as tonpraten, or barrel-speaking. But we’ll get back to that.
Barrel-speakers, fools and Dirty Jennies will be celebrating carnival from now until April all over Flanders
From 10 February to 1 April, you can celebrate carnival in a different Flemish town every weekend. The proverbial starting shot is always fired on the Sunday before the Christian Lent begins, 40 days before Easter.
The main attraction on Carnival Sunday is the famous stoet, or parade, in Aalst, where splendid floats mock local and global events. The Voil Jeannetten, or “Dirty Jennies”, (men dressed as women who act, shall we say, rather bawdily) take over the town during the concluding festivities on Tuesday. Almost two months later, on Easter Monday, the last Flemish carnival parades march through city centres.
About 500 carnival associations are part of FEN-Vlaanderen, the Flemish umbrella organisation that itself is part of the Federation of European Jesters. For more than 40 years, FEN-Vlaanderen has been co-operating with counterparts in Wallonia, the Netherlands and Germany and its members regularly don their colourful costumes to meet, exchange ideas and plan for the future.
But the main role of FEN-Vlaanderen is assisting the associations of Flanders in every stage of carnival preparations. The organisation mediates with the government, if possible, helps with practical issues and protects the cultural value of carnival. “Carnival should be a big party to forget all your worries, but it’s also part of our heritage, with old traditions that you have to respect as an association,” says FEN-Vlaanderen chair Jean-Jos Lecoque. To hand over the carnival traditions to the next generations, FEN-Vlaanderen also provides lesson materials for schools.
Drunken brass bands
The traditions include a date in the official season (not, for example, in the summer) and proper costumes. But to make sure the entertainment is adapted to the particular atmosphere, FEN-Vlaanderen organises an “artist evening”. During the last weekend of September, typical carnival artists can showcase their acts to associations from all over the region, who can then book them.
Among these artists are Zatte Harmoniën (literally, “drunken brass bands”), named after the tradition of playing in one bar after another during carnival. The singing is mostly done by traditional schlager singers and the dancing by so-called Dansmariekes. You could call these latter groups of women the cheerleaders of carnival, marching while dancing in their frivolous dresses.
The origin of the Dansmariekes lies in the mocking of the, ahem, kind of girls who tried to seduce military officers in the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. The concept of carnival princes is similarly based on the pompous reputation of military officers.
On their soapbox
The most remarkable carnival artists, however, are the tonpraters, or barrel-speakers, who mostly come from Limburg. Just like medieval fools, they dress in clownish costumes and entertain the audience with funny speeches that at the same time contain a kernel of truth. Often, they impersonate prominent village characters like teachers, priests or mayors.
But, as their name suggests, the lectern of tonpraters consists of a wooden barrel in which they stand during their speech of exactly 11 minutes. Eleven, or the “fool’s number”, is a magical number in carnival activities: It’s also, for example, a Raad van Elf or Council of Eleven that plans the local festivities.
Tonpraten may sound like pure entertainment, but it’s not easy to amuse a crowd for so long while standing in a barrel. To make sure the artists have enough expertise to properly honour this tradition, the educational association Buutte-onderwijs Limburg trains candidates in a series of 10 lessons. For 15 years, FEN-Vlaanderen has been supporting the conservation of this folklore, including by organising a try-out for a full house of carnivalisten at the end of November.
The case of the princes
It’s normally the notorious parade of satirical floats roasting politicians and other prominents that causes controversy at Aalst, but this year the turbulent election of the carnival prince has already made headlines. The carnival prince symbolically becomes mayor for three days by receiving the key to the city and leads the festivities. He is usually chosen by the organising Council of Eleven, but in certain cities – such as Aalst – candidates have to wage a campaign and convince the juries with a show during an election evening.
On 14 January, Het Laatste Nieuws reported that a supporter of losing candidate Steven Van Wesemael cut the brakes in winner Peter Van Nuffel’s campaign bus. The driver discovered the “sabotage” just before he was about to depart with 40 passengers on board. However, an investigation showed only that the pipe for the coolant had burst, which could not have been manipulated from outside the bus. Notwithstanding this evidence, the chairman of the winner’s carnival association insisted that the bus had been sabotaged and must have been repaired in the meantime.
Lecoque, who has been an active part of carnival for 30 years, feels the mentality has changed over time. “We strive towards a professional organisation, but carnival remains an occasion to shake off all stress; the kind of tension we saw in Aalst is counterproductive for the typically relaxed carnival atmosphere. The participants sometimes take these elections too serious nowadays.”
The Carnival Calendar
The carnival in Knokke-Heist on the coast starts on 10 February with a mass to remember fishermen who have drowned. In the afternoon, the giant puppets Pier and Wanne walk in the parade, which also includes floats. The Monday afterwards is Sprotjesdag, when the cafes offer free sprot (sprat), and ends with the Ball of the Mermaid.
The masked football game between the teams of Vissers (fishermen) and Plakkers (plasterers), which takes place on the Tuesday, was first played in 1928. The Fishermen play in red outfits and with a fake nose, while the Plasters wear green and have fake moustaches. In the evening, illuminated floats again ride through the centre and a doll of the carnival prince is burned. The weekend concludes with plastic balls and babelutten sweets being thrown to the audience. www.carnavalheist.com
The oldest carnival parade – dating back to 1892 – is in Herenthout, Antwerp province, for two Sundays: 10 and 17 February. The Peer Stoet procession originates from a theatre tradition. Every 50 metres, the groups come to a halt to give a personal performance for the audience. Don’t expect innovative floats with political satire here – many floats are on a cart pulled by a tractor. This is a jubilee year: The parade is in its 121st year, with 121 the square of the carnival number, 11. The jubilee is celebrated with an exhibition and the publication of a comic book on the Peer Stoet. www.karnaval.darolite.be
The second-largest carnival parade with floats in
Flanders takes place in Halle, Flemish Brabant,
on 10 March. Just as in Aalst, the
Halattraction carnival is brightened up by the
carnival characters named gilles – men dressed
in traditional red-and-white suits who play
music and throw oranges into the crowds. As
the carnival in Halle is strongly linked to the
Catholic religion, the gilles on Sunday also light
candles in the basilica and Sint-Rochus church
to pray for a good end to the festivities. www.carnavalhalle.be