Carnival in Dunkirk







Carnival of Dunkirk, Carnaval de Dunkerque

This is undoubtedly France's craziest carnival. Most men wear female clothing and extravagant hats with ostrich feathers, a very important accessory is an umbrella with an extra-long handle. The parade ends under the balcony of the City Hall, from which the mayor throws to the crowd 450 kilos of smoked herrings.

Dunkirk is a small town in the north of France, which entered history because of massive battles during World War II. The first time they took place in 1940 when the British Forces and Allied troops were cut off by the Germans and eventually had to be evacuated to England; the second time in 1944, when the Germans fortified in the city and furiously fought until 9 May 1945.

The country's third largest port is located only 10 kilometres from the Belgian border, opposite the English coast. It is an important industrial centre; there is not much history preserved - long-term bombing destroyed more than three quarters of buildings. The beach is lined with adorable Art Nouveau houses and cosy restaurants, but the sea is mostly cold; so the carnival has become one of the main attractions for tourists. It is said to be the craziest of the whole of France, and when I read what was going on there, it really seemed; although I wasn't able to understand everything. The information was mainly in French, some words were not in the dictionary and I understood them only on the spot.

The carnival origins lie probably in the 17th century, when the ship owners held the ,,Foye” feast for the fishermen. The first official mention of them dates back to 1676. In March, the men usually departed for six months to fish for herring off the coast of Iceland. It was never sure how many would return from a dangerous voyage, many were shipwrecked or lost at sea, leaving behind children and wives. Therefore, the shipping companies paid them an advance on the salary before they left and, moreover, they organized a generous feast for them and their families. It was the last opportunity to eat, drink and dance. As the men were already packed for the expedition, they usually wore their wives dresses and hats decorated with flowers.

They had fun all night long and after leaving the restaurant, they often continued outside. The fishermen in crazy clothes walked throughout the city and spread a good mood. Since this often coincided with the last days before Ash Wednesday - the beginning of Lent; the farewell festivities gradually evolved into the carnival.

By the end of the 19th century, interest in fishing in Iceland had fallen, and a merry tradition died off. At the beginning of the 20th century the inhabitants returned to it, and in 1946, it had a special importance to them. Carnival in the city, devastated by war, gave people again a taste for life. The surrounding communes began to cooperate and support it in every possible way. It has become not only an opportunity to meet family and friends, but literally a civic duty, which some have allegedly included in a prenuptial agreement.

Nowadays, it runs for more than three months. Each weekend the bands play on the streets, there is a small parade in the afternoon and a ball in the evening (with a poetic name such as The Violet Ball, Black Cat, Corsairs...).

The highlight is three days before Ash Wednesday, called the 'Trois Joyeuses' (Three Joyful Days). On Sunday, carnival participants walk through the centre of Dunkirk, on Monday around the neighbourhood of La Citadelle and on Tuesday around Rosendaël. Unlike in other cities, however, Ash Wednesday here does not mean the end of fun.

It is said that this is not a carnival to watch but to be part of, and this implies almost an obligation to procure at least a symbolic mask or to have your face painted.

Once, people used potato bags for disguises (clet’che) and today, they still don't ́invest much in it. They are the kings of recycling: either they find something suitable in grandmother's cupboard, or go to the market -- in the part called Cafougnette there is a wide offer of old clothes suitable for masquerade.

Most men wear women's clothes stuffed with massive boobs. They have a wig, a hat, a perfect make-up and false eyelashes; sometimes you may see garters stuck out from under their miniskirts. The result is humorous or grotesque and at the same time comfortable, so that one does not get cold during a long march.

The most important accessory, however, is a colourful umbrella with extra-long handle, the so-called le berguenaere. Small, big, simple or painted one. If it rains, it will protect you, if you are tired, you can lean on it and if you get lost in the crowd, your friends can easily locate you. According to one version, the weather was so ugly in 1847 that the carnival had to be postponed by a week; but then it still rained cats and dogs and so people eventually went to the city with umbrellas. The second version is more likely: les berguenaeres were probably introduced to mock the people of nearby Bergues who used to come with umbrellas (the town's resident is called Berguenaere).

Many paint them or cover them with the "deep thoughts", and the crazier the better. Gradually, le berguenaere became a symbol of the Carnival of Dunkirk.

In Dunkirk, they use a confusing term "faire la bande" (make a horde), which in this case means a parade. It is quite different from other cities or countries.

At the head of the parade, "reuzes" (eight-meter tall puppets) are carried. Their willow frame is dressed to represent local heroes. Giants can be invited to attend different festivities, and if they meet their significant other, they may marry and have children.

Allowyn, the original puppet of Dunkirk, lost his head several times, for example, to the French Revolution, and then again in the early 20th century, when it was cut off by the electric wires of the new tram. Current Reuze met his love in Lille in 1899. She became his wife; they have three children and six bodyguards.

The most important component of the local carnival is music, provided by a group of musicians (clique) in the traditional yellow fishermen’s raincoats. It is headed by a drum major (tambour-major) in a white-blue-red Napoleonic uniform, and consists of a large drum, fifes, brass instruments and smaller drums.

While the fifes are playing, people in masks walk calmly. When they cease, the procession stops; at the command of the conductor, the trumpets start playing and a chahut (a rumpus) begins - in fact, a pushing. The main role plays so-called front ranks. They are made up mostly of strong men, who intertwined with elbows form a solid wall, stretched across the entire street, even a mouse would not slip through. When the chahut breaks out, they take a firm stance and try to hold back the crowd behind them, who in turn push forward. No one uses their hands but their chest or back.

First lines are usually not accessible to inexperienced people to escape an accident. However, this apparently ugly melee has exact rules. If someone happens to fall down, the nearest person shouts: "A fall!" and the others stop to keep the line from collapsing. The locals know how to avoid an injury, so they dislike when tourists try to participate and fight without mercy like in rugby. Then the men of Dunkirk, even in their skirts, may dust their jackets…  :)

When the chahut is over, the whistles resume again and the parade goes on.

There is also a character called Le Figueman. He is disguised so that nobody can recognize him and has a stinking shoe, spider or fish attached to the fishing rod, replacing the former fig - hence the name Figman. He bumps into people, drives them nuts, imitates them... Usually it is someone known, but since he has a mask and changes his voice, it is difficult to identify him. And that's the point; Le Figueman should stay incognito for as long as possible.

Carnival-goers can drop in to the so-called chapelles, private gatherings. Some residents of the neighbourhood through which the colourful snake of people passes, open their homes to friends. They prepare a treat - onion soup, herrings and cakes and whoever wants can come for a few glasses and chat. These places aren't accessible to everyone; you often need to know a password to be let in.

Of course, another important part of the feast is songs - traditional, vulgar and anthemic, such as L'Hommage au Cô (Homage to the legendary drum major, who used the nickname Cô-Pinard II) and Cantate à Jean-Bart (Cantata for Jean-Bart) - these are played at the end of each parade. During them, the participants hold their hands.

Jean-Bart is a local hero, a well-known corsair who is said to have saved the city from famine. The town honoured him by erecting a sculpture and by naming a square after him; the bronze statue miraculously survived the bombing and it is a very important point for the inhabitants. He is commemorated also by coffee-cream pastry called le doigt de Jean-Bart, Jean Bart’s fingers.

After a three-hour walk through the city, the carnival arrives in front of the Town Hall, where the mayor and his assistants are already waiting on the balcony to throw 450 kilos of smoked herring wrapped in cellophane.

This peculiar part of the program began in 1962. The city, reduced to ruins during World War II, decided to add the carnival a little originality and celebrate the reconstruction of the Town Hall by throwing fish because it was their season. The event was received with enthusiasm, and today,  at the end  of almost all the parades around, something is tossed to the crowd (there are some little differences  - in Saint Pol sur Mer they throw dried herrings and in Bergues their own specialty – cheese).

Over the years, a tradition has been developed; people under the balcony demand what belongs to them by a strange chant. When Claude Prouvoyeur was mayor, they shouted: "Prouvoyeur, des kippers!" (smoked herrings in the local dialect). After him, Michel Delebarre came and to preserve a rhyme, they called: "Delebarre, des homards!" (lobsters). The man used to throw a plastic lobster, which the lucky catcher could exchange for a real one. For the same reason, the current head of the Town Hall, P. Vergriete, decided to toss chips (les frites), actually twenty big, plastic pieces. Those who catch them are entitled not only to a plate of mussels with chips in the restaurant, but also to stay at the balcony next year and take part in the throwing.

Finally, the carnival procession moves back to Place Jean Bart. The musicians go onto the stage around the corsair statue and play the most famous songs, while the final jig called rigodon begins downstairs. This is nothing for claustrophobics, because people already quite alcohol-fuelled, are squashed like sardines, side by side, body to body; and they keep pushing strongly even for an hour. I read that if it is cold, you can see rising off them a cloud of steam produced by the heat!

After the rigodon is finished, people get down on their knees and hold their hands while singing a song in honour of Jean Bart. Then they can finally run into the bars and restaurants and have fun until the morning - or choose one of the balls organized by the carnival associations…

I came to Dunkirk on Friday night. The city seemed a little sad, it was cold and raining and the streets were almost empty. At least the bay with yachts and huge three-masters (part of the museum) was strongly illuminated. The tower by the water changed the colours of the windows; purple, pink and green alternated with red; and the beautiful cathedral literally shone in the dark.

On the Internet, I found unequivocal information that herrings would be thrown from the City Hall on Saturday at 5pm, but I didn't manage to find out when the parade would begin.

The hotel receptionist startled me. It turned out that throwing would not be at 5pm and would not even be in Dunkirk!

What they call the Carnival of Dunkirk is actually a lot of small carnivals in different parts of the city and surrounding villages, such as Fort-Mardyck, Saint-Pol-sur-Mer, Bergues, Ledringhem, Wormhout.... No wonder they begin celebrating in late January and end in mid-April, long after the beginning of Lent. Directly in the centre of Dunkirk, the parade takes place only on one day, Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

The receptionist had a schedule of parades; on Saturday there was supposed to be one in Fort-Mardyck.,,Believe me, you are lucky; it's better to go to the carnival in a village. Here the Three Joyful Days are a real madness, the Parisians come here to get boozed up massively,” she snorted.

So, in the morning, at first I went to the information centre. I wasn't the only one who came to the Carnival of Dunkirk. The lady behind the counter was wringing her hands; on the Internet it was all wrong, people were coming with questions since the morning.

As it was about to break out at three o'clock, I had time to visit the city, but I wasn't thrilled. Although life gradually returned, the inhabitants didn ́t forget their history; plates with sad testimonies of terrible bloodshed are placed on almost every corner.

I had an amazing salmon in a champagne sauce at the L'Edito restaurant on the water and then went to Fort-Mardyck.

The neighbouring towns are connected by free buses so those eager to drink and roister can let their car at home. Initially the empty vehicle gradually filled with costumes (it was strange to ride with Batman and Wonder Woman).

I wanted to buy a mask on the spot, but there were no promised stalls. I found myself in a small village, full of low family houses, where only one little pub was opened. And so, although my motto is “if carnival, then only in costume”, I was almost the only one without it. That's probably why the locals immediately identified me as a "parisienne", a stranger, who came only to booze up  :)

I arrived in time, the procession just started. Its participants really looked quite different than elsewhere.

They wore no sophisticated masks, but old clothing like for work in the garden, with stitched / glued / pinned badges, stuffed animals, key chains, flowers and other small good-for-nothing things they found at home. They also adorned their hats with toys, flora and long ostrich feathers; in the evening they added small light chains. Some had painted faces, but again differently - either a part from their nose down or only a horizontal stripe; or they had nautical motifs on their cheeks. Nothing original, nobody had much trouble with the costume. Indeed, almost all men were dressed as women; I saw several miniskirts and bare legs, one gentleman even wore nylons and sandals on high heels! This must be a seafarer heritage, because the weather was shitty, alternating drizzle, rain, snow and terrible blowing. I was freezing in my warm coat while they endured rain and icy wind as well as their ancestors who used to go to the sea…

The parade was small. The local puppet was at the forefront, then musicians in yellow raincoats, followed by "front ranks" with umbrellas, tightly connected by their elbows; and the other participants.

The lines were stretched to the whole width of the pavement in accordance with unwritten rules. While marching music was played, everybody walked disciplined. When the song was over, the drums went silent, the trumpets started; and the chahut began. I finally understood what it meant. The entwined ranks blocked themselves. Those in the back were pushing against the first ones, who literally lay on their backs with all their weight. They kept pushing each other, back and forth, I could see umbrellas swaying to the left and to the right; but as the procession was small, it wasn't fight for life, it was fun. A man in a mini skirt was lying on the crowd so comfortably that he could cross his legs in orange pantyhose and pose to photographers. :)

Then the conductress in a hat with a plume gave order; everything went back to normal and the procession continued. We walked through the village; we hopped, jumped and some of us sipped out of the flasks they were supplied with (and got slightly tipsy). Especially the first ranks were in a great mood. In many windows and doors, spectators waited; some greeted friends, others joined us. During the two stops, everyone “refuelled”, either into themselves or into bottles (and after this, no one walked as disciplined as in the beginning).

Around 5.45 pm we arrived in front of the small Town Hall. The mayor and his assistants went out onto the balcony and tossed the people smoked herrings, which made happy both those hungry and drunk. Anyone who caught a fish plunged right off into it; in a moment the whole square smelled of smoked meat…

The following night-lifing certainly lasted until early morning, but I went back to town.

So I returned to Dunkirk on Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Suddenly it was a completely different city, full of cheerful colours and cheerful people. On Jean Bart Square, Reuze stood with his family. People were chatting and drinking in front of bars or sitting on the ground and waiting for festivity to break out. I realized that it was true that everyone is someone else during the carnival - many wore so much makeup that even their own mothers would not recognize them. Well, therefore they may behave so crazy  :)

The men proudly showed their boobs as big as soccer balls and struck a flirty pose for the cameras. The elegance was missing a little; one guy sat with his legs so wide apart that you could see his briefs under the miniskirt (it was also quite fun to see the "girls" in the skirt to pee standing up). Their hats with feather-boas (the glaring, the better) and small plastic objects like donuts, corn, tomato, dinosaur, whale or a mini-bottle, served to tickle bystanders. A man, who adorned it with several dummies, explained to me that the decades old hat was a kind of picture of his life.

Many "ladies" flirted with me, and one slightly tipsy decided to follow custom and give me a zeutch, a kiss on the cheek as a sign of sympathy. I wasn't against it, but only in the evening, when I looked in the mirror, I understood why people all day long smiled furtively at me. A dark red lips mark remained on my face, just like I saw on the others.

When the speakers started playing the first song, people spontaneously began to dance; they made a train and wandered through crowds. After that, they went to the starting position and the procession (here called Visschersbende, Fishermen's parade), set off.

This time it was a mass march. The first ranks closed up into a solid formation. When they were taking a right-hand bend, they almost swept away the spectators. The others walked in a relaxed manner and found time to take a picture, dance with a willing "lady", and even to have a glass of wine. As the pushing began, the umbrellas moved wildly from left to right and front to back, but as soon as the drums set off, all calmed down and marched peacefully forward.

I didn't follow the whole route, I also went for a donut and wine. But before 5 pm I was already waiting in front of the City Hall, so I saw the end of the parade, which reminded me of a march of drunkards.

Although I read that there is a relentless battle for fish, the fight took place just under the balcony, from which the mayor and his assistants were tossing it. Whoever wanted to catch went to stand forward and who didn't, watched from afar. At one point, a smoked herring flew right in front of my nose, but it was only the Figueman - a guy with a mask, in a hooded cloak who poked people with a rod with stinking fish…

The Carnival of Dunkirk culminated at 7 pm with rigodon at Jean Bart Square, but I admit I didn't feel like participating. It was dark, cold and many of us weren't sober. I preferred a dinner in a restaurant where I was served by a nice Batman :)

I was sad that I did not buy nor special stamps or postcards; everything was closed and I did not have time to visit the tourist information. And I didn't manage to go to the bakery Au Bon Pain de France in Malo les Bains, which prepares an original (and very vulgar) dessert every year to honour the carnival.

Maybe it's better, because when I saw a picture of The Pearl of the Countesses (La Perle des Comtesses) on the Internet, I blushed for ten minutes... Just imagine that their previous works of art were called La Crotte de Malo (Excrements from Malo), Le Zizi d'ma Tante" (My aunt's Little Willie)," La Tototte à ma Tante Charlotte "(A tit of my aunt Charlotte) and so on :)

Last time I visited the village of Wormhout 30 kilometres from Dunkirk. Finally, the weather was beautiful, and I could enjoy coffee and cake outside in the sun. The parade was cheerful, everyone was in a good mood and I left again with a kiss on the cheek…

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