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"Giants" & carnivals

Giants, led by Jean le Bûcheron, in the streets of Steenvoorde in April. Many festivals include processions of visiting giants, as well as those of the town.

Colourfull umbrellas - sometimes still home-made - are part of the street celebrations in Dunkerque.

"Géants" and town carnivals
You're standing in a huge, happy and very noisy crowd lining the streets of the North Sea fishing port of Dunkerque. You're enjoying a sip of the local beer, watching some very strangely dressed men wave umbrellas. They cheer as a fife-and-drum band dressed as Napoleonic soldiers marches past. Suddenly a huge looming figure, 20 or 30 feet high, sways into sight as part of the procession. It's the town giant!

Religious origins
This colourful Flemish tradition dates back to the
Counter-Reformation in the early 16th century. It came from Spain and Portugal, when Flanders was part of the Spanish Netherlands. The Catholic church set out to encourage popular expressions of piety to ward off the threat of Protestantism.

Early "Géants"
Large figures were carried in annual religious processions to mark occasions such as the day of the town's patron saint. Most were biblical figures like Goliath or St. Christopher, and they gradually acquired various attendants in masks and costumes. The giants were traditionally made of flexible wickerwork, and they could actually dance with the music of the procession. In
Douai, the townsfolk had their processions banned by bishops because they were getting too pagan!

Folk art
French Revolution in 1789 was anti-church and atheist: the first republic banned the giants, and destroyed many of the figures. Napoleon permitted more secular giants to return, but the popular tradition was not fully revived until the restoration of the French monarchy in 1814. New characters were created, generally local heroes or legends. The tradition developed, and giants became the centrepiece of northern town's festive carnival processions.

Giants are only seen on special occasions. Each town has a voluntary association, which keeps up the tradition, looks after and repairs the giant figure, and provides the bearers and attendants who accompany the giant as he or she dances through the streets - while bands play a special giants' tune.

Look out for gatherings of giants when one association invites other giants as guests to a special procession. Sometimes there are “weddings”! There are over 200 of huge figures, and they usually represent some significant episode in the turbulent history of these border towns. Some of the characters are centuries old, others are quite recent inventions. Aging figures need to be replaced - a good excuse for a “christening”.

Dunkerque carvival
For two months (late January to early March), Dunkerque celebrates the festival that once gave a cheerful send-off to fishermen sailing north to fish in the dangerous icy waters round Iceland.

Each weekend a different group holds a procession, with crowds of carnival revellers led by a band, and featuring visiting "giants" such as the Scandinavian warrior Reuze Papa and his wife from Cassell. In the evenings each group holds a lively ball.

1. "Binbin" - the 3.25 metre-tall Valenciennes giant, in the September carnival
2. Monsieur and Madame Gayant, Douai's giants are even bigger! There are 6 men inside Monsieur Gayant.
3. "Reuze Papa" in a 19th century procession in Cassel. Painted in 1876 by Alexis Bafcop, brother of the Ambroise Bafcop who created the giant in 1826. Alexis later made a "wife", called "Reuze Maman". The couple were still appearing in parades in 1999, but both are due to be replaced soon - due to old age.

Building a new giant
1. Lille's new giants were "born" in 1999: Lydéric (behind) and Phinaert - the tough-looking ogre with the beard! Giants are living legends - new ones are born almost every year....
2. Building Lille's new giants - the wickerwork frame is very light, and covered by the skirt. the man or men inside see out through a flap in the cloth at eye-level...
3. ....The head is lightweight papier-maché, sculpted and painted to suit the character.

Places to visit:
Cassel | Dunkerque | Douai - home of perhaps the biggest giant family in the region!
Gravelines | Hazebrouck | Lille |

More information and web-link:
A complete guide to the Giants of the Nord Pas-de-Calais region is available by post from the Association that keeps the tradition alive. It hopes to develop a new visitors centre about giants, in a farmhouse near Loos (on the outskirts of Lille):
(plan, right)

Proposed Giants' Visitors Centre

Association 'La Ronde des Géants'
Ferme d'Ennequin
11 rue Ambroise Paré (ancien chemin de Tournai)
BP56, 59374 LOOS Cedex
Tel/fax: 00 33 3 20 50 14 40

For a calendar of WHEN and WHERE to see the giants, and background information on the tradition of giants with data on each one, see the Association's website:

Related background information
Counter-Reformation: “retables”
Traditional Games

History of Flanders
Flemish Art

Food & drink

Flanders today










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