A Belgian Mardi Gras is worthy of Mummers

Birds of a feather: Marchers in Gilles costumes sport three-foot-high crowns of billowy white ostrich plumes for the afternoon Mardi Gras parade in Binche, Belgium. Their costumes, in Belgium's national colors of black, red, and yellow, display Belgian heraldic lions and crowns, and are hung with small bells They clomp their wooden sabots on the pavement as they march to the beat of 26 authorized traditional tunes.
Birds of a feather: Marchers in Gilles costumes sport three-foot-high crowns of billowy white ostrich plumes for the afternoon Mardi Gras parade in Binche, Belgium. Their costumes, in Belgium's national colors of black, red, and yellow, display Belgian heraldic lions and crowns, and are hung with small bells They clomp their wooden sabots on the pavement as they march to the beat of 26 authorized traditional tunes. (MITCHEL ZOLER)
Posted: March 03, 2014

Anyone who's been to Philadelphia's Mummer's Parade would feel at home watching the Mardi Gras parades in Binche, a French-speaking town of 10,000 in southern Belgium.

The Two Street crowd would recognize the men, teens, and children in colorful costumes; the ostrich plumes sprouting from heads; the brass, woodwind, and drum bands playing a nonstop stream of traditional, upbeat tunes that compel shuffles, shimmies, and struts. They'd recognize the lively crowd, fueled by high spirits and beer, lining the parade route, and, most Mummerly of all, the century-plus history that links today's paraders with generations past.

Binche's Mardi Gras celebration on the Tuesday before the start of Lent - in 2013 it was Feb. 12; this year, it's March 4 - is a town-wide, multigenerational tradition that links families, friends, and the whole community. Costumed grandfathers strut and dance with their costumed grandchildren. Thronging the parade are moms and dads, relatives and friends - in civilian clothes often sporting a sprig of mimosa flowers on a hat or lapel.

Many also wear an Orange Porteur tag. Les Porteurs are the official brigade charged with maintaining a steady supply of small oranges to the costumed paraders, who toss them to the crowd, giving the Belgian Mardi Gras a juicy, healthful, old-time gloss.

Binche is small enough to be impossible to get lost in. Arriving at the town train station just after noon on a gray February Mardi Gras after a 70-minute ride from Brussels, it was easy to follow the crowd to the Grand Place, the town epicenter. Down the town's main street, heading north from the Grand Place, is where the parade begins.

With more than 2 hours until the first parade at 3 p.m., there was enough time to duck into the Binche International Carnival and Mask Museum ( www.museedumasque.be), near the south end of the Grand Place.

Though a fair amount of space displays masks from around the world, the collection's highlight is an archive of costumes, props, prints, paintings, and photos from past Binche Mardi Gras, as far back as the first half of the 19th century. There are decades of history in prints and sepia photos of monochromatic men in classic Gille-the-clown costumes wielding their oranges, baskets, and feathered headpieces.

Mardi Gras costumes in Binche are derived from classic European characters of mischief and merrymaking in the commedia dell'arte and memorialized through the centuries by generations of European painters. The most common Binche character is the Punch-like Gille, decorated with the Belgian national colors of black, red, and yellow, with Belgian heraldic lions and crowns, small bells that jingle with the strut, and a long, narrow white scarf wrapped around the head, giving the men of the Gilles troupes a uniform, anonymous look.

Gilles come in two sizes, men and boys, and during the Mardi Gras afternoon parade the men mostly, plus a few boys, wear three-foot-high crowns of billowy ostrich feathers, most of them white, some tinted with color. On Mardi Gras morning, their faces are hidden behind Guy-Fawkes-like masks, with curled mustache, long sideburns, a small soul patch, and an outlandish pair of painted-on green eyeglasses in the rough shape of swim goggles, but the masks are gone for the afternoon parade. They all wear wooden sabots on their feet, and number a few hundred.

Other paraders sport the other three costumes. The Paysans, the peasants, are a mix of young boys and adolescent boys dressed in a deep navy tunic with white pants, a white broad-brimmed hat with a couple of white ostrich feathers, and a brown leather messenger's satchel for toting their oranges. The Arlequins, boys and girls, some as young as 4, wear a harlequin suit of red, yellow, blue, and green, with a narrow, knotted black belt, a white neckpiece, and a green hat sporting a raccoon tail. The Pierrots, also boys and girls, wear single-color costumes in a pastel blue, pink, green or yellow, with matching pointed hats, white collars, and black dot accents.

Sixty minutes before the day's first parade started, a crowd began forming along the metal-pipe barriers that line either side of Avenue Charles Deliège, the eight-block-long parade route. But most of the 20,000 or so people who triple Binche's population on parade day were still spending their pre-parade moments in one of the many bars that line the avenue, spilling out into boisterous crowds on the sidewalk. As parade time drew closer, small groups of one, two, or three Gilles appeared on side streets accompanied by a snare drummer tattooing the Gilles' advance.

The street within the barriers started to fill, first with the musicians: snare drums, bass drums, coronets, trumpets, trombones, tubas, sousaphones, and clarinets.

As the Gilles, Paysans, Pierrots, and Arlequins and their Porteurs began to assemble, the bands started up, playing melodies from the list of 26 authorized Mardi Gras tunes, ditties such as "Le Postillon de Longjumeau," "Vivent les Bleus," and "Les d'Gins de l'Estène." To the unaccustomed ear many of the songs sound similar, all with a motivating, stomping beat, blaring choruses of brass notes, and an occasional, soaring trill of clarinet.

The costumed revelers warmed to their task and began tossing oranges to the now shoulder-to-shoulder crowd on the far side of the barriers, with more spectators looking out from windows while the paraders, porteurs, and their friends stomped and shuffled to the beat, clomping on the pavestones in their wooden clogs with enough coordination and focus to shiver the pavers and rattle the ground. The throbbing thump was infectious.

Milling, shaking, and strutting to the tunes, the paraders started a slow shamble toward the Grand Place, while still pitching small, red-tinted oranges, plucked one by one from carried wicker baskets, into the crowd.

Maintaining a steady supply of oranges to so many costume-wearers is not easy. Only those in costume get to toss fruit, but many of their non-costumed family members and friends who strut along in the parade wear the small Orange Porteur badge - predictably orange-colored itself - and the porteurs tote enormous sacks of fruit that they quickly pile into empty baskets and satchels.

The parade slowly strutted and tossed its way into the Grand Place, where those in costume began to form a long, advancing line, hands together on their now-empty baskets, shuffling in a huge oval, a rondeau around the cobbled square with all the musicians from the various bands gathered in the center, drums pounding in synchrony, horns blaring as one. A hood-draped matriarch in top hat and black satin gown, one of the parade's elders, stood on a two-step podium leading the players with a simple one-two beat.

The afternoon's break came abruptly at about 5:45. The music stopped, and the costumers, musicians, porteurs, and other paraders dispersed into surrounding streets.

During the break, the adult Gilles seemed to mostly retire to their respective "locals," the taverns that each Society selects as their watering hole. Thirteen Societies encompass the costumed Mardi Gras participants in Binche, the current oldest dating to 1899. Society rules limit membership to those born in Binche or long-time residents.

Refreshed, the paraders reassembled for the evening's repeat, which started at 8, similar in layout and activity to the first, except now it was dark, with street lights illuminating segments of Avenue Charles Deliège. In the dark spots, in the middle of the road among the regrouping paraders, black-gowned parade elders lit and placed on the pavers flares that cast a ghostly, surreal glow on the costumers who danced and strutted around the flickering light until each flare flamed out and was replaced.

No flying fruit or throws of any kind this time. Another oval rondeau formed, as paraders shuffled in their wooden shoes around the perimeter of the long, cobblestone square to the beat of the bands. Then fireworks erupted above the square, finishing by about 10 when the crowd dispersed to a night of hoisting at the locals until Lent arrived the next morning.


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