Every year in Winter the people of Dunkirk are taking over the streets of the coastal town to celebrate France’s noisiest carnival with a colourful vibe enjoyed by locals and tourists alike.
The colourful carnival of Dunkirk takes place from January to March and attracts an estimated 40,000 dressed up revellers marching, dancing and singing on the streets of the town. The Dunkirk Carnival is often described as being the oddest and maddest carnival in France.
Tradition has it that local fishermen would feast with their families before heading off to sea to fish off the coast of Iceland for six months. Ship-owners would then offer a ‘Foye’ to the fishermen, that is an advance on their salary with a generous party before the departure. The first mention of the carnival dates back to 1676.
Today the festivities last from January to March with a series of balls and parades on weekend days in Dunkirk and the villages nearby. The culmination of the carnival takes place on the ‘Trois Joyeuses’ (Three Joyful Days), the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday. On these days the town of Dunkirk embraces an atmosphere of excitement with loud bands playing on the streets and revellers taking over the streets dressed in extravagant outfits carrying colourful umbrellas on long handles.
The most popular outfit is the traditional yellow fishermen’s coats and is wore by the Visshersbende (‘group of fishermen’ in Flemish). As in many other towns in the North of France, huge puppets (Reuzes) are carried across the city centre. Those of Dunkirk date back to the 1800s and measure up to eight metres high. On the Sunday afternoon of the ‘Trois Joyeuses’, everyone gather together in front of the Town-Hall on Place Saint-Valentin. It is tradition for the crowd to demand ‘the herring they deserve’. At around 5pm, the mayor of Dunkirk come out onto the balcony of the belfry to throw some 500 kg of herring into the crowd below. A real battle ensues as each carnival goer expects to catch his/her herring…
The festivities continue on the Place Jean Bart at 7pm for the Rigordon, the final stage of the Dunkirk Carnival. It includes a jig, a dance and a song sung by the carnavaleux (carnival-goers) on their knees and holding hands in honour of Jean Bart, Dunkirk’s naval hero.
In 2016, the Trois Joyeuses celebration in Dunkirk will take place on Sunday 6, Monday 7 and Fat Tuesday 9 February.