Belgian carnival town celebrates again after COVID hiatus

Benesch, Belgium, Feb. 5 (US): On a sunny winter morning preaching Mardi Gras, Beatrice and Carl Kristen don’t have a minute to spare.

In their cozy workshop decorated with portraits of grandparents, the couple lean over their sewing machines.

They are busy putting the finishing touches on the delicate lace details that adorn the carnival costumes that will send an entire town into ecstasy once they parade through the cobbled streets of Binche.

“It’s a total rush, we’re late,” said Carl, a fourth-generation tailor.

But for the Christenses and their son Quentin, who is now in charge of the family business in the medieval western Belgian town, the pressure this year is looking really good, the Associated Press reports.

After a two-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic brutally bringing one of Europe’s oldest Mardi Gras celebrations to a halt — and the Kerstens on the verge of bankruptcy — the festivities are back with a vengeance this winter.

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

The earliest records of Binche Mardi Gras, which attract thousands of revelers, date back to the 14th century. Many Belgian cities hold spirited carnival processions before Lent. But what makes Binche unique are the “jells”—local men deemed fit to dress in Mardi Gras costumes.

Under rules set by the local Folklore Defense Society, only men from Binche families or residents there for at least five years could wear a gill costume. Other characters – peasant, sailor, Harlequin, Pierrot or Jill’s wife – also play a role in the carnival.

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The UNESCO-listed event begins three days before Lent and climaxes at Mardi Gras, when gills — in wax masks with green glasses and tippy moustaches — dance in their wooden clogs to the sound of brass instruments and clarinets until the early morning hours. Women can join, but only men dress up as Jill.

“Carnival is really the soul of the town of Bench, so we’ve been really sad for the past two years,” said Patrick Humont, a city council employee who often takes part in the festivities, dressed in red, yellow and black. .

Over the past three weeks, rehearsals for the main show have attracted 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 usually drink, it’s now five,” Hammont said.

After the economic struggles of the pandemic years, and amid the pain of energy bills that have bubbled through after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the people of Benchey want to make this year’s carnival one for the ages.

Although participation requires a large financial commitment — renting a gill costume and fancy ostrich feather hat costs around €300 ($327) — around 1,000 gills are expected to parade through the narrow streets of brick rowhouses to the beat of a drum and the ringing of their dress bells.

“People have rented more costumes, more hats. Everyone wants to do it again. We can see there’s a need,” Hammont said.

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For Christian Mustad, the 88-year-old member of Gil’s largest corporation, this will be his 38th Carnival as Gil.

“In normal times, we would be around 140 or 145,” he said. “This year we will be 158. There are veterans who have not participated for a long time and are back, as well as many new participants.”

Charlie Rombo is among the newcomers. The 35-year-old delivery driver doesn’t want to don the traditional heavy-duty hat weighing nearly 4 kilograms (8.8 pounds) in his debut as a generation.

Experienced Mustad had the solution, Pat.

“The solution is to find three men in your company with the same head size, so you can take turns wearing the hat,” Mustad said as the two men met for the first time this week.

This need to meet again in a city where the carnival creates a unique sense of belonging is a relief to the “louageurs”—the artisans who make the costumes and hand them down to a generation.

At some point during the pandemic, as he struggled to make ends meet, Quentin Kirsten considered calling an end to the pandemic and starting over as an electrician. His parents had to dip into their savings, forgetting about the trips they had envisioned for their retirement days to save their business instead.

Carl Kirsten summed it up: “It was a disaster.”

But that dark chapter is now closed. Haumont refers to his words: “For a regular Carnival, there’s an effervescence. But this year, it’s just going to be crazy.”

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