The Belgian carnival city celebrates again after the COVID break

BINCHE, Belgium — On a sunny winter morning that heralds a bright carnival, Beatrice and Karl Kersten don’t have a minute to spare.

In their warm workshop, decorated with ancestral photos, the two bend over their sewing machines. They are busy putting the finishing touches to the delicate lace details that adorn the carnival costumes that, once paraded through the cobbled streets of Binche, will delight a whole town.

“It’s really hectic, we’re running late,” says Karl, fourth-generation tailor.

But for the Kerstens and their son Quentin, who now run the family business in the medieval western Belgian town, the pressure this year feels really good.

After a two-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic that brutally brought one of Europe’s oldest carnival celebrations to a halt – and the Kerstens on the brink of bankruptcy – the celebrations return with a vengeance this winter.

“There’s a real excitement and excitement,” Quentin said. “People came to reserve their costumes much earlier than in other years.”

The earliest records of the Binche Carnival, which attracts thousands of revelers, date back to the 14th century. Many Belgian cities put on exuberant carnival parades before Lent. But what makes Binche unique are the ‘gilles’ – local men thought fit to wear the carnival costumes.

According to rules established by the local Folklore Defense Association, only men from Binche families or men who have been resident there for at least five years are allowed to wear the Gille costume. Other characters – the farmer, the sailor, the harlequin, Pierrot or Gille’s wife – also play a role in the carnival.

The UNESCO-listed event begins three days before Lent and culminates on Mardi Gras, when the Gilles — in wax masks, green glasses and thin mustaches — dance into the wee hours in their clogs to the strains of brass instruments and clarinets. Women can participate, but only men wear the Gille outfit.

“Carnival is really the soul of the town of Binche, so we’ve been very sad for the past two years,” said Patrick Haumont, a town hall worker who often attends the celebrations, dressed in red, yellow and black attire.

In the past three weeks, rehearsals for the main parade have drawn more participants than usual. And on weekends, the excitement in the bars that fill the city’s main square reaches unprecedented levels.

“Instead of the one beer you would normally drink, it’s now five,” Haumont said.

After the economic struggles of the pandemic years and amid the pain of skyrocketing energy bills following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the people of Binche are looking to make this year’s carnival one for the ages.

Although participation requires a large financial commitment – renting a Gille costume and a lavish ostrich feather hat costs around 300 euros ($327) – about 1,000 Gilles are expected, parading through the narrow streets of brick terraced houses to the beat of the drums and the bells of their outfits.

“People rented more costumes and more hats. Everyone wants to do it again. We see that there is a need,” said Haumont.

For Christian Mostade, an 88-year-old member of Gilles’ biggest company, it’s his 38th carnival as Gille.

“In normal times we would be at 140 or 145,” he said. “This year we will be 158.

Charly Rombaux is one of the newcomers. For his big appearance as Gille, the 35-year-old delivery driver does not want to wear the traditional hat, which weighs almost 4 kilograms.

The experienced Mostade had the solution ready.

“The solution is to find three men with the same head size in your company so you can take turns with the hat on,” Mostade said of the two first meeting this week and quickly engaged in a passionate conversation were involved.

The need to reunite in a city where Carnival creates a unique sense of belonging is a relief to the “louageurs” — the artisans who make the costumes and rent them out to the Gilles.

At some point during the pandemic, when he was struggling to make ends meet, Quentin Kersten considered quitting and starting over as an electrician. His parents had to draw on their savings and forget about the trips they had planned for their retirement days to save their business instead.

“It was a catastrophe,” summed up Karl Kersten.

But this dark chapter is now closed. Haumont marks his words: “For a normal carnival there is effervescence. But this year it’s going to be crazy.”

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