Carnival of Binche
The tiny Belgian town's ancient version of Mardi Gras involves eerie wax masks, sticks for warding off evil, and ostrich plume hats.
Tracing its roots back beyond writing to a long tradition based in oral folklore, the city of Binche does Carnival like nowhere else on the planet.
For nearly two months leading up to the famous carnival itself, the city prepares for its primary celebrations. On the days of, one look at the uncanny masks and fancy garb of its participants and the reason why UNESCO declared the event a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” becomes clear immediately.
Nearly 1000 “Gilles,” traditionally male and ranging in age anywhere from toddler to elder, appear in a heavy overstuffed, vibrant costume consisting of clogs and bells. In the morning they wield sticks to ward off evil while donning a disconcerting wax mask with green glasses, the latter of which is swapped for hats decorated with towering white ostrich plumes in the afternoon.
Oranges are handed out as tokens by the Gilles to spectators. By nightfall, the oranges frequently end up being thrown about, occasionally resulting in nearby buildings suffering collateral damage, though to return an orange to a Gille is considered extremely poor form, as it is the equivalent of rejecting a gift.
Virtually nothing about the dress, customs, rituals, or reception has changed across centuries. Though written accounts of the Gilles date back to the 18th century, extensive scholarly efforts have produced no answers as to the original source of this authentically Walloon tradition.
To fill this gap in knowledge, several myths of legendary scope have been invented, the mystical nature of which only serves to further fuel the carnival’s appeal. The most successful of these legends to catch on was concocted by newspaperman Adolphe Delmée, who suggested that the Gille were inspired by (if not descended directly from) Incas imported by the Hungarian royal court in 1549. While it is widely known that this is, in fact, not even remotely close to being a true origin story for the Gilles, some of the festival’s participants continue to brandish the story for the air of historical legitimacy it gives the celebration.
Regardless—or precisely because—of its incredibly old, unknowable nature, Binche’s Carnival continues to enchant onlookers just as powerfully as it did centuries ago, when its the original Gilles marched through the streets in exactly the same fashion as they do today.
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