When we speak about Carnival, we often think about Rio or Venice. With that said, in France, there is one carnival that’s a little bit different than others, where the stars are not artists or dancers but the locals themselves! It is celebrated in the area of Dunkirk and lasts for multiple weekends in February.
The origins of the event date back to the 17th century, where the sailors were getting ready to go out to sea for weeks around Mardi Gras (Pancake Day). Before their departure, given the huge risks of the job, a big party was organized in their honor, La Foye. Over time, that event was combined with another local event, Les Folies.
There are 2 kinds of events during the Carnival:
- Les Bandes: In the streets, thousands of “carnavaleux*” create a long line. Everyone must hold his neighbor by the elbow even if you they don’t know each other. The Bande parades from a village to another. The people must fill the width of the street.
- Les Bals: Parties happening in the community centers where the carnavaleux gather to celebrate and dance. The most famous one is “Le bal du chat noir” (The Bal of the black Cat)
The “Specials” of the Carnival of Dunkirk
This carnival is a local event made by and for the locals. It has a vocation to bring the people together.
- Les Chapelles: Some people open their house for the carnavaleux to offer food and drinks. But, you need to be invited if you want to get in.
- The Herring’s throw: a Post-War tradition (WWII) where, to celebrate the reconstruction, the Maire wanted a special event. This idea, somewhat crazy, came from the famous Cô Pinard II. The herring are first wrapped and are then thrown by the Maire from the Town Center.
There are a few rules to know before participating to this event and becoming a real carnavaleux.
- Every carnavaleux must be disguised, wear make-up or be masked. These costumes (clet’che) are often made of womens clothes and crazy make-up.
=>Why? The sailors, because they had packed their clothes for the long trip already, were taking their wife’s clothes to party.
- Every carnavaleux must know the songs of the Carnival. Those songs are, often parodist and sometimes a bit vulgar (and in the local dialect): Les Chansons Paillardes. But 2 of them are different and are the anthems of the Carnival: “The Tribute to Jean Bart” (a local hero) and “Tribute to the Cô” (in reference to Jean Minne, aka Cô Pinard II, a famous carnavaleux).
This carnival is a lot different than others because it is not made to be grandiose or a tourist attraction. Despite of its few giants, the main objective is to gather the local population around one tradition. However if you wish to see a bal or a bande, Northern people are really welcoming! But do not forget your clet’che!
*carnavaleux = people taking part in the Carnival