Carnaval!, perhaps better known to many Americans as Mardi Gras, is the celebration that takes place between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday. The term Mardi Gras actually refers to the practice of eating fatty foods the day before Lent. Carnival also has links to the Jewish holiday of Purim.
Carnival was always a foreign festivity to me. As a native of the Mid-Atlantic states, I knew it only through pictures and the Mardi Gras party that my small New England college held once a year. When I came to France on a junior semester abroad, I got my first real taste of Carnival when a group of us went to Le carnival de Nice. The season starts with the galette des rois (king’s cake associated with Epiphany but really just an excuse to eat cake everyday thoughout the month of January). You eat them everywhere you go. Children come home from school with multiple fèves (literally a favor, but usually either a dried bean or a tiny ceramic figurine hidden inside the cake). By January 31st, when the galettes are no longer sold by the bakeries, you’ve had enough of flaky dough pastry and frangipane (a creamy almond paste) to last at least another 11 months.
When the galettes end, carnival season begins. Wikipedia says that there are two main carnivals in France: Nice and Paris. But, since I live in Northern France, I will add Dunkirk (Dunkerque in French) to the list.
Le Carnaval de Nice, from what I remember as an onlooker during my student years, is like a drunken parade of half-naked Brazilian dancers. Le Carnaval de Dunkerque is the total opposite, minus the drunkenness. Dunkerque is known for its cross-dressing crowds, loud bands and the mayor who throws herring from the belfry. Personally, I’ve never even heard of Le Carnaval de Paris…
Carnival is also a huge to-do in Cologne, Germany where the city shuts down for 2 days at the beginning of March. It is also well known in Venice, Italy and in Binche, Belgium where hundreds of Gilles (jester like people walking around on stilts) dance through the streets (this is actually recognized by UNESCO for the cultural heritage).
Here in the North of France, carnival season is when the giants wake up. Each town in the North has its own giant who leads the carnival parade. My neighborhood’s géant is a 15-foot-tall accordion player. Other local giants include cats, local saints and legendary thieves or tobacco sniffing custom’s dogs. (Click here for a full list of the giants).
Before my daughter began school, we latched on to the local carnival parades, making homemade costumes and following the group of local school kids, Brazilian drum groups and brass bands through the neighborhood streets. Now that Suzanne is in school, we see that carnival is one of the culminating events of the school year.
The entire month of March is dedicated to preparing for the carnival which includes making the costumes in class (my daughter’s teacher asked the parents to bring in a large piece of red fabric to make costumes) and parents are asked to dedicate time on Saturday to decorate silly hats and thread large paper beads for colorful necklaces or stuff bags with confetti.
The day of the carnival, everyone assembles at the school. The entire school – maternelle and primaire and anyone else who wants to join – parades through the neighborhood with a police escort. This is standard practice for all of Lille’s school-age children. In fact, Lille hosts at least 3 carnivals during the month of March.
There are many Mardi Gras activities that you can do with your kids at home such as making masks or necklaces. The traditional colors of the New Orleans Mardi Gras are purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power. But the biggest rule of Mardi Gras or Carnival is that anything goes!
To add a touch of American to the French Carnaval experience, here is also a recipe for New Orleans King’s Cake: