Each year the little town of Binche in the south of Belgium gets together to celebrate the UNESCO protected folkloric festival, which brings many thousands of visitors to its small streets. The Carnaval’s shining stars are the Gilles (the men dressed in orange and stuffed with straw), who save up a huge sum each year to carry on the generational tradition. The event spans over 6 weeks, finishing with a 3 day event ending on Mardi Gras.
There are several requirements for fulfilling the role of a Gille. Firstly, owing to their commitment to the festival's historical rules, Gilles are strictly male. When asked, the local women did not seem to mind the aged gender roles that have persisted throughout the years. They’re able to participate as other characters or as helping hands to the Gilles, enjoying the day just as much. Although some admitted to being very envious of their brothers as youngsters. It is truly an honour to become a Gille, something the young boys of Binche crave to be a part of from an early age. But it must not be taken lightly as the final day has been known to last over 24 hours, which whilst on a diet of mainly champagne, beer and oysters can prove overwhelming for some. Gilles must gather huge amounts of blood oranges, as much as 80kg, which are pelted at onlookers throughout the day bringing luck to anyone who catches one. Those who have the means sport lavish ostrich feather headpieces during the throwing of oranges and wax masks are worn for a big dance in the square, closely followed by marching bands as no Gille is allowed to walk without their personal drummer drumming them a beat.
The festival is beautiful and is the embodiment of their community spirit. It is an integral part of the villagers’ identities that brings together past, present and future generations. Like many historic traditions however, the Gilles de Binche are seeing a decline in interest from the next generation. And with the festival having been cancelled for the 3rd year running adding to the fact, what future this Carnaval holds only time can tell. I was fortunate enough to document the last running of the event before the world locked down.
Like the many generations before us have shown, it is the inherent human trait of pride and an uplifting sense of celebration that keep these traditions alive, regardless of the challenges the communities may face. I have no doubt in my mind that the Gilles de Binche will be straight back on the streets celebrating the minute they are able to. It is events such as Les Gilles de Binche that remind us of the joy and meaning of community.