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Every year in Winter the people of Dunkirk are taking over the streets to celebrate France’s noisiest carnival with a colourful vibe enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. Let’s find out more about the joyful Dunkirk Carnival.

 

The Colourful Dunkirk Carnival

The City-Hall of Dunkirk and its belfry © Ville de Dunkerque
The City-Hall of Dunkirk and its belfry © Ville de Dunkerque

The colourful carnival of Dunkirk takes place from January to March. The event 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.

Dunkirk Carnival © Ville de Dunkerque
Dunkirk Carnival © Ville de Dunkerque

Today the festivities last from January to March. They comprise 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. Loud bands play on the streets and revellers take over the town dressed in extravagant outfits carrying colourful umbrellas on long handles.

Dunkirk Carnival © Ville de Dunkerque
Dunkirk Carnival © Ville de Dunkerque

 

The carnival’s most popular outfit

The most popular outfit is the traditional yellow fishermen’s coat. It is worn by the Visshersbende (‘group of fishermen’ in Flemish).

As in many other towns in the North of France, the revellers carry across the city centre huge puppets (Reuzes). Those of Dunkirk date back to the 1800s and measure up to eight metres high.

On the Sunday afternoon of the ‘Trois Joyeuses’, everyone gathers 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 5 pm, the mayor of Dunkirk come out onto the balcony of the belfry. From there he throws some 500 kg of herring into the crowd below. A real battle ensues as each carnival goer expects to catch his/her herring…

The Major of Dunkirk at the Carnival © Ville de Dunkerque
The Major of Dunkirk at the Carnival © Ville de Dunkerque

 

The final stage of Dunkirk Carnival

The festivities continue on the Place Jean Bart at 7 pm 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.

Dunkirk Carnival © Ville de Dunkerque
The colourful celebration © Ville de Dunkerque

Find out more about the event on the town’s tourist board website.

In 2022, the City of Dunkirk cancelled the festival for the 3rd time.

Featured image © Ville de Dunkerque

About the author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. He has a background teaching French, Economics and Current Affairs, and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations, and a degree of Economics and Management. Pierre is the author of the Discovery Course on the Secrets of the Eiffel Tower and the Christmas book "Voyage au Pays de Noël".

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