Every year for hundreds of years the people of Dunkerque have recalled the sacrifices of their local fishermen with a carnival – not just any old carnival but one of the noisiest and oddest carnivals in France!
Dunkerque is a small coastal town with a big port – anyone arriving in or departing from France via Dunkirk ferry port might be forgiven for thinking that it’s a bit of a dreary and dull place. But just a short drive into the main town of Dunkerque and it’s a world away from the industrial wastelands around the port and you’ll find a busy town with a lively atmosphere and from January to March one of the maddest events in France – the Carnaval de Dunkerque.
It’s origins lie in the 17th Century when ship owners held a feast for the fishermen and their families before the men departed for six months to fish off the coast of Iceland – a dangerous job in which many lost their lives. The first documented evidence of this celebration dates back to 1676 and the people of this town have held onto the tradition of this carnival with enthusiasm.
The Dunkerquois love to party and to celebrate their heritage. The Carnaval de Dunkerque takes place over several weeks with a series of weekend balls and processions with bands playing in the town and villages around. The events culminate in the “Trois Joyeuses” – three days of events which take place on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday each year.
On these three days the town becomes a scene of mayhem and fun. On each of the days there are different bands roaming the streets, playing their music loudly. The visscherbende represents the fishermen of centuries ago who early each year would be waved off on their voyages to catch cod in Icelandic waters.
Over these three days revellers take over the streets dressed in outrageous costumes and carrying coloured umbrellas on long handles – the more outlandish and weird – the more the crowds roar their approval! The visscherbende play on the Sunday of Trois Gloreuses, dressed in yellow sou’westers and commanded by a drum-major, parade through the streets playing music and singing traditional songs such as Cantata Jean Bart. The crowd are expected to join in singing and dancing and making as much noise as possible if they like the songs – the whole place has an atmosphere of excitement, spontaneity and chaos.
There are huge puppets called reuzes carried through the town – they are jolly giants and are prevalent in the North of France where their origins go back centuries. The reuzes of Dunkerque date back to the 1800s. The puppets are up to eight metres high and are built around a light willow frame which is then dressed to represent local heroes. The reuzes can be “invited” to festivities where they meet other giants and marriages can occur resulting in new giant children! Reuze-Papa met his soul mate in Lille in about 1899, she became his wife and took the name reuze-maman and they have three children and six body guards.
On the afternoon of Sunday of Trois Joyeuses the crowds follow the band and the reuzes, the giants, to the town square and call out to the Mayor of Dunkerque “Les harengs, les harengs”. This is the cue for the Mayor to come out onto the balcony of the Belfry at around 17.00 and throw about 450 kg of herring into the gathered groups below.
Then it is back to the Place Jean Bart for the Rigodon – the final jig, a dance and song in honour of Dunkerque’s naval hero Jean Bart.
It is a bizarre, noisy, boisterous, fun and colourful event – dress up as much as you like! The Dunkerquoise are amongst the most welcoming and friendly people in France and they really do like to let their hair down.
More information from the Dunkirk Tourist Information site.