Gigantic horses, questionable costumes, cat fetishes, cross-dressing, nooses (yes, nooses), goat parades and village-wide golf tournaments. There’s really no better way to understand a country and its people than through its century-old popular traditions.
Visual research by Thomas Ost.
Aalst Carnaval, Aalst
An event so iconic that it has its own museum, royalty and countdown clock – that starts ticking as soon as the last one’s over -, Aalst carnival takes over the city on a yearly basis, for three days right before the start of lent. Dress-up and public parades that include over a hundred floats hijack the provincial town’s centre, which for locals often amounts to unprecedented debauchery. Stirring up the most conversation, though, is the Jeanettestoet on Tuesdays, an event that has the city’s men dress up as women with different attributes – a bird cage, an eel, fake breasts, a corset, a fur coat, a broken umbrella and a push cart. The tradition stems from Aalst’s blue collar roots; back in the 70s, the working class wasn’t able to afford beautiful costumes, which is why the men decided to participate wearing their wives’ old rags. Often likened to Rio’s carnival and New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, the popular and self-deprecating touch of Aalst makes it a tad less glamourous, but it’s definitely worth heading over to see the event for yourself. Parade cars often ridicule local (and global) politics, with last year’s winning float depicting a Trump-like figure who shouted that a wall had to be built between the cities of Aalst and Dendermonde, two neighbouring villages that have been in eternal rivalry with each other. Dendermonde was going to pay for the wall, too.
Ros Beiaard, Dendermonde
Few horses carry as much meaning to a city’s people as Dendermonde’s Ros Beiaard does. Embedded on the city’s logo, the Ros Beiaard is a legendary steed rumored to understand human speech, and was to be tamed only by the four sons of Aymon. A symbol of resistance to Charlemagne, the 12th century ruler had a stone tied to the horse’s neck, before throwing it into the Scheldt river – but, not taking into account Ros Beiaard’s strength, the horse smashed the rock with his hooves and went on to live forever in the woods. In Dendermonde, the legend is celebrated every ten years, when an enormous constructed horse – carried by several dozens of people – parades through town, with four local brothers sitting on top. It’s worth mentioning that the four chosen boys have to undergo extensive training in order to be able to spread their legs around the horse for an extended period of time. All-in all, the parade requires more than 2000 extras, and anyone who’s ever witnessed it has surely seen the many elders of the city shed a tear or two when watching Dendermonde’s pride and joy parade through the streets. The next one is scheduled to take place in 2020 so don’t sleep if you want a good spot, as the best ones are booked years in advance.
A symbol of Ghent’s rebellious and stubborn nature, the Stroppendragers have been a city -wide tradition since the sixteenth century, when emperor Charles V had the city’s noblemen – 25 in total – executed, owing to their responsibility for a revolt in 1540. Before their execution, the men had to walk through town wearing a noose (‘strop’) around their neck in a bid to send a thinly veiled message to Ghent’s citizens. Up to this day, the noose stands as a symbol for proud resistance against any form of tyranny and misplaced authority. Every year, during the summertime Gentse Feesten festival, many of the city’s inhabitants can be spotted wearing a black-and-white noose around their necks, referencing Ghent’s coat of arms.
While Ypres is mostly dubbed ‘city of peace’ because of its World War I history, a lesser-known nickname calls Ypres ‘city of cats’. Every three years, a parade of people dressed up as, you’ve guessed it, cats, stroll through town, attracting as much as 10,000 spectators – amongst which many Chinese, for whom cats are a symbol of good luck. The parade itself commemorates a medieval tradition: cats, because of their association with witchcraft, were thrown down from the top of the city’s Belfry, symbolising the elimination of evil spirits. Today’s customs involve less animal cruelty though, having replaced the actual cats with plush toy cats, followed by a mock witch burning. As for the parade itself, it’s been transformed into an actual celebration of the cat, and follows several themes; amongst which the cat throughout Egyptian, Celtic and medieval history, cats around the world, and the Ypres cat itself.
Also known as the goat village, Antwerp suburb Wilrijk pays tribute to its name every five years with its very own goat parade. Stemming from a dispute between liberals and Catholics in the late 19th century, the liberal party accused the catholic one of being extremely stubborn, giving them the nickname ‘goat heads’ – a name later worn with pride by the accused. It was only in 1965, though, that city officials decided upon celebrating Wilrijk’s history with its very own parade. Depicting historical stories, one of the biggest eye-catchers of the event is the ‘Lange Wapper’: a giant that, as legend tells it, was born in Wilrijk and had the ability to grow and shrink to its own will, seen to people from Wilrijk as a good samaritan of sorts, helping the weaker out. For people from Antwerp, on the other hand, ‘Lange Wapper’ is nothing more than a pesterer.
Although an ancient pagan tradition all around Europe, the Meyboom (‘May tree’) symbolises fertility after winter. The tree is planted to give prosperity to that year’s harvest, cattle and people. The planting of Brussels’ Meyboom supposedly happened as a commemoration of the city’s victory against an invasion by Ghent in the early 13th century – or, as a second hypothesis tells it: as the result of a fight between Leuven and Brussels during a wedding. Celebrating victory, the people of Brussels planted their Meyboom, and continue to do so every single year on the 9th of August before 17h – if done later, Leuven gets to plant its tree first, and thus has the upperhand. Today, the planting of the Meyboom is accompanied by a parade of the cities’ seven giants and the Meyboom association’s own brass band.
République Libre d’Outremeuse, Liège
Held yearly in the Liège district of Outremeuse since 1927, the three-day event was created by a group of journalists and neighbourhood personalities after a trip to Paris. Inspired by the free commune of Montmartre, they hoped to install an independent government for the Walloon commune, complete with presidential elections and speeches – all held in Walloon dialect of course.
Similar to the Aalst Carnival, the Carnival of Binche is held on the three days preceding Ash Wednesday. Having received the UNESCO title of Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, its history is cited to date back as early as the 14th century. As for its name, the Gilles refer to the clown-like performers that march through the streets during the event, their costumes changing depending on the time of day, from wax masks and wooden footwear to ostrich-plume adorned hats and – on the last day – sticks to ward off evil spirits. Seen as somewhat of a status symbol by the men of the village, about 1000 of them participate in the procession, their ages ranging from as young as 3 to 60 years old, with more and more women taking part every year.
Originating, like many of the events on this list, in the Middle Ages, the Ducasse – or Doudou, after an ancient song – of Mons happened for the first time in 1349 on Trinity Sunday, when the city was suffering from the plague. When, during the procession, the shrine of Waltrude and Vincent Madelgarus, both religious symbols, were brought to Casteau, a miracle supposedly happened, and Mons was free from the plague. The procession is traditionally accompanied by the game between Saint George and the dragon – symbolising good and evil – on the city’s central square. The dragon, with a ten metre-long tail, is assisted by devils, while Saint George has his Chinchins (dogs, or chien-chien). The whole event happens according to a meticulous choreography and lasts for exactly 30 minutes – during which the chant of the Doudou is sung continuously by a troupe of 65 people. Attracting enormous crowds up to this day, it’s a yearly endeavour of many to touch the devil’s tail, as doing so is supposed to bring good luck for the rest of the year.
Crossage de rue, Hainaut
Comparable to golf, crossage de rue is an age-old habit practiced in Eastern Hainaut on Ash Wednesday. The principle is rather straight-forward: beer barrels are placed in front of local bars, and inhabitants of the villages are divided into teams who have to hit wooden balls with a stick, aiming to shoot them in the barrels, moving from bar to bar. Call it a rather creative pub-crawl if you must, to the citizens of the many Hainaut villages where Crossage is still practiced today, it’s become a symbol of independence and resistance: the practice was prohibited in 1319, and in 1700 a group of crosseurs were chased out of the towns.
Les Macralles du Val de Salm, Vielsalm
While witch hunting might be a thing of the past, in the Liège village of Vielsalm the Macralles, literally meaning sorceresses in Walloon Liègois, still get their momentum every year, ever since a folkloric group founded their own witchcraft group in 1955 based on the legend of Gustine Maka, a Macralle from the city who offered a drink made up of gin and crushed blueberries to young people in the forest. Having treated the berries with black magic, everyone who drank the cocktail transformed into Macralles themselves. Every year, the Vielsalm Macralle troupe hold their sabbat in the presence of NeûrBo (who symbolises none other than the devil) in front of a 2,000-strong audience. Spectacularly telling the stories of their exploits, the ceremony is held after dark – giving children a good scare, year after year.
Le Grand feu de Bouge, Namur
A tradition held all across Wallonia, the great fire is lit on the summer solstice, commemorating winter’s end and marking the advent of spring. A custom that has barely changed over the years – and that celebrated its 60th edition in 2017 -, anything and everything that burns – wood, hay and logs – gets collected from the houses, thrown together on a hill in Bouge overlooking the city and lit by either the mayor, the captain of the city’s youth movement or by the last person that got married. The fire gets started when Bonhomme Hiver arrives, accompanied by a brass band, and carried by a group of men dressed in red masks, and once lit, six similar flames go up on the six adjoining hills. It’s even said that those who witnessed the Grand Feu de Bouge are protected against dark magic and bad luck year-round.
Le Bataillon des Canaris, Namur
Literally translating to the Battle of the Canaries, Le Bataillon des Canaris represents a Namur division of the Belgian revolution and celebrates the first period of Belgian independence, when the country’s citizens revolted against emperor Joseph II’s reign. Dressed in – you guessed it – canary yellow, a local non-profit now does a yearly re-enactment of the battle at the barracks on top of the city’s Citadelle and aims to include as many people from the city as possible, no matter their age or size. Carrying their title with pride, the canaries consist of a 20-strong group today that have the ambition to make the event as authentic as humanly possible, even going as far as to recreate the exact fabrics the 19th century uniforms were made out of, and carrying flintlock rifles.