With carnival canceled, sadness takes over Belgian town

With carnival canceled, sadness takes over Belgian town

People wearing protective face masks wait in a line outside a specialty shop in the Grand Place in Binche, Belgium, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. In normal life, the small town of Binche in southern Belgium would be bursting with excitement for the carnival festivities that have been labeled a 'Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity' by UNESCO, but in 2021 the COVID-19 regulations have forced the carnival to be cancelled. (Credit: Virginia Mayo/AP.)

The coronavirus has brought to a sudden halt one of Europe’s oldest surviving street carnivals.

BINCHE, Belgium — In normal times, the small town of Binche in southern Belgium would be bursting with excitement.

It’s this time of the year when craftsmen put the finishing touches to the vibrant costumes, ostrich-feather hats and wax mask of performers known as Gilles. The whole town braces itself for the carnival festivities that have been labeled a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO.

Not this year, though.

The coronavirus has brought to a sudden halt one of Europe’s oldest surviving street carnivals.

Tailor Karl Kersten stands in his atelier with shelves full of costumes for the Gilles de Binche in Binche, Belgium, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. The economic impact of the cancellation of this years carnival due to COVID-19 will be difficult for local craftspersons who rely on the income. Kersten, a fourth-generation tailor of Gilles de Binche costumes, spends all year preparing for the event and rents about 1,000 costumes. This year his shelves are full. (Credit: Virginia Mayo/AP.)

A woman walks past a carnival poster and a closed cafe that has chairs stacked in its window in the Grand Place of Binche, Belgium, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. (Credit: Virginia Mayo/AP.)

A sign pasted onto a cafe window, decorated with images of the Gilles de Binche, warns people that wearing a protective face mask to protect against COVID-19 is obligatory in Binche, Belgium, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. (Credit: Virginia Mayo/AP.)

On a frosty morning this week, downtown streets were empty of the sound of drum rehearsals, and cafes remained shut amid strict anti-coronavirus measures implemented across Belgium.

“All the inhabitants in Binche live and take part in the carnival,” said Daniel Pourbaix, who heads the association for the protection of Binche folklore. “So when there is no carnival, everyone is sad.”

The carnival has roots dating back to the Middle Ages and normally draws thousands of aficionados. It takes place during the three days before Lent, reaching its climax on Mardi Gras, when the Gilles characters with their green spectacles and thin moustaches dance to the sound of brass and clarinets.

Rather than organizing a cut-rate festival this year, organizers have opted for its cancellation. But the Gilles will be present all the same — floating in the air as their gigantic heads have been deployed on poles across the city.

Tailor Karl Kersten folds a pair of trousers which are part of the Gilles de Binche costume at his atelier in Binche, Belgium, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.  (Credit: Virginia Mayo/AP.)

A poster which reads in French ‘I am Carnival’ hangs in solidarity in a window in Binche, Belgium, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.  (Credit: Virginia Mayo/AP.)

Tailor Karl Kersten shows one of the elaborate ostrich feather headdresses usually worn by the Gilles de Binche and are now in storage at his atelier in Binche, Belgium, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.  (Credit: Virginia Mayo/AP.)

To warm hearts, Binche residents have also been invited to set up mimosa displays close to their windows — the yellow flower is a symbol of the carnival — and to wear Gilles face masks.

In addition to the sadness at the cancellation, the economic impact will be difficult to swallow for all the craftsmen who rely on the carnival season for their revenues. To help artisans like Karl Kersten go though the crisis, Binche’s folklore association has launched a solidarity fund.

Kersten, a fourth-generation tailor of Gilles costumes, spends all year preparing for the carnival season and rents about 1,000 costumes during the festivities. This year, his shelves are full.

“It’s quite simple, this year we won’t get anything. A big zero,” he said. “Hopefully, with the vaccines, we will be able to resume our activities next year.”

In this Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009 file photo, traditional Gilles de Binche dance in their colorful costumes and wooden clogs, during the Mardi Gras festival in Binche, Belgium.(Credit: Virginia Mayo/AP.)

In this Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020 file photo, a group of people dressed as Gilles de Binche march through the Grand Place during the traditional carnival in Binche, Belgium. (Credit: Francisco Seco/AP.)

In this Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 file photo, a Gilles de Binche throws an orange during the Binche carnival, in Binche, Belgium. (Credit: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP.)

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