Carnival of Aalst

Carnival of Aalst
Photo: belg.be
Carnival is a Western Christian festive season occurring every February before Lent. It is celebrated in many European countries and Belgium is not an exception. The best Carnival celebrations are held in Aalst, Binche, Malmedy, Stavelot, and some other cities. The Carnival of Aalst has even been declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Aalst is a relatively small city located in the Flemish province of East Flanders. It is famous for its carnival festivities celebrated on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before Lent. The Aalst Carnival dates back to the Middle Ages. The first Carnival procession was held in 1851 but the celebration became official only in 1923. Since then, the parade has been organized by the city council.

The festivities are presided over by Prince Carnival. On Saturday evening, he participates in a mock city council session where he receives the key to the city. Prince Carnival has been elected annually since 1953. Another important character is Kaiser Carnival. To become Kaiser, one needs to be elected Prince three years in a row.

The Carnival officially starts on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Sunday is the day of the Grand Parade organized by the city council. All Carnival groups are local. Large groups have floats and elaborate costumes in vibrant colors. More than 100 floats are featured in the parade every year. Small groups focus on satire and mockery rather than on costumes and props. Although called “small”, they can have around 100 members.

On Monday, there is another parade. It is much less formal and more relaxed than the Sunday one. There is no strict route and floats don’t follow a strict order of appearance. But the main highlight of the day is the Broom Dance followed by the throwing of the onions. Prince Carnival and his court throw onion-shaped candies from the belfry next to the town hall. Onion throwing is more than just a fun game, it’s also a lottery because some onions haven numbers matching with prizes. The main prize is a golden onion.

Tuesday is the day of the Stoet van de Voil Jeanetten (the Parade of Dirty Jeanettes) that features men dressed in drag. This tradition is several centuries old. In olden times, men who were too poor to acquire an elaborate carnival costume wore their wives’ clothes. Typical attributes of cross-dressers participating in the parade are fake breasts, corsets, fur coats, worn umbrellas, strollers, bird cages, and herrings.

The final event of the Aalst Carnival is the burning of an effigy symbolizing the spirit of the Carnival. It takes place on Tuesday evening, marking the end of the festive season and the beginning of Lent.

Carnival of Aalst

Photo: Antonio Ponte



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