Carnival in East Belgium: local, traditional festivals for everyone - East Belgium Go to content

Carnival in East Belgium: local, traditional festivals for everyone

A tale of two traditions: from the Rhineland in the German-speaking community, walloon in the French-speaking community.

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Carnival in East Belgium is more than just a big party

Held each spring before the start of Lent, there are important, time-honoured traditions to uphold.

During Cwarmê in (mainly) French-speaking Malmedy, revellers parade in garish traditional costumes, some of them adorned with long-nosed masks.

In German-speaking municipalities such as Sankt Vith, Kelmis, Raeren and Eupen, they follow Rhenish traditions, and dance to German songs. Today, here in Eupen, it’s Rosenmontag – Rose Monday. The February sunshine encourages the crowds to brave the cold as they await the arrival of the Carnival Prince 2023, Marco I.

A Rhenish carnival festival

“In Eupen we celebrate carnival according to the Rhenish tradition. You’ll find a similar tradition in Cologne,” says Alain Brock. He is a passionate “carnivalist” and chairs the carnival committee of the former carnival princes. “At carnival we celebrate this age-old custom of partying before Lent begins. Here it can be traced back to 1213. The tradition of colourful carnival clothing began at the end of the 18th century, when the cloth industry was flourishing here. During carnival, businesses were closed for three days so that everyone could join in the festivities. The left-over bits of material that people were allowed to take home were used to make their costumes.”

“In Eupen six traditional groups have been taking turns to appoint a carnival prince for decades,” continues Alain Brock. “And just over 80 private carnival groups participate in the procession each year. The floats are built over many months in advance. Everything is made by hand, even the costumes. During the festivities, groups gather early in the morning to get ready and do their makeup. An enormous amount of preparation goes into this four-hour procession. The applause when the prince passes by during the Rose Monday parade, that’s pure magic! That's why we do it,” he beams.

At carnival we celebrate this age-old custom of partying before Lent begins. Here it can be traced back to 1213.

The final touches

During the weekend before carnival the final preparations are made. This applies in particular to the warehouse where several of the carnival floats are stored. The final finishing touches take place there: painting the last stripes on the floats, attaching the stickers, hanging the flags and lights. All the while, a succession of German songs resounds through the hall. That sets the tone!

The final seams in the costumes will also be sewn during this weekend. Mrs Bartholemy is 74 years old and has been making clothes for her daughter for more than 22 years. “Making clothes is my hobby. I really enjoy doing it for the carnival because I get to interact with young people,” she says, smiling. She got the “carnival gene” from her parents: as a child, she was always allowed to join in the celebrations. And she still participates every year, to this day. “I am on the organizing committee for the 'Old Wives’ Thursday' in Eupen. We have breakfast together at half past eight. Then we walk through Eupen via the retirement home, through the Bergstraße and to the Clown, the statue by the artist Joseph Braun that pays tribute to the carnival traditions of the city. We then visit the Mayor who – at 11:11am precisely – hands over the key to the Town Hall as a symbol of the transfer of power to the women. We walk through the city and party in the afternoon at the German-language newspaper Grenz Echo. Our festivities continue in the evening with the ball.”


The carnival princes 2023

Fabien Marichal is president of La Royale Malmédienne, a male choir that performs traditional songs, and he is also playing the role of Trouv'lê (the symbol of power) at the Malmedy Carnival 2023. As with his Eupen counterpart, Marco Demonthy – Carnival Prince 2023 Marco I of Eupen – it’s his job to lead his town through the planned festivities.

“During the pandemic, we dressed up and paraded through the streets to celebrate, in spite of everything,” says Prince Marco I with a smile. “That’s just how we are, us Eupen carnivalists: spontaneous and can-do minded. In those difficult times we did not lose heart: we found a way to celebrate carnival and uphold our tradition.” This 26-year-old carnivalist's greatest dream has come true, now that he is the Carnival Prince of his city for 2023. As a member of the carnival group called KKG Micky-Mäuse, he and his younger counterpart, the 10-year-old Youth Prince 2023 Thibo Fays, lead all the revellers through an extended weekend of exuberant partying. Youth Prince Thibo says: “I love carnival because it is so fun – there’s a lot of confetti. And we can celebrate it together as a family.” The carnival in Eupen is of course a much longer affair than just the organized festivities. Says Youth Prince Thibo, beaming: “Two weeks after carnival, my Mum is still finding confetti in our house. We always have confetti hunt at home!”


Order over chaos

The Cwarmê of Malmedy is similarly a celebration for young and old alike. “I feel like a bottle of champagne that has been maturing for far too long and is ready to explode!” exclaims Fabien Marichal. “So many emotions are bubbling up in me, now that our party can finally get going." While the Carnival Prince has become a central figure of festivals in the Rhenish tradition, the Trouv'lê fulfils a parallel symbolic role in the Cwarmê – and this means maintaining order during the festivities. “I ensure that everyone behaves according to the code of conduct that is appropriate for their particular role. As captain of the youth groups in the past, the Trouv’lê did his best to make sure they behaved.”

The roles of Carnival Prince and Trouv'lê do indeed have much in common. For six days they both serve as figureheads for their region – the former parading on a carnival float with his two pages, the other on foot to humbly maintain order. But beyond that, these carnivals are completely different, in both mood and culture.

Rose Monday: the big day

In Eupen, the Monday before Lent begins is called “Rosenmontag” (Rose Monday). The origin of the name is uncertain, but may relate to the golden rose that the Pope traditionally blesses at the end of Lent. It’s the day of the big parade, in which all the carnival groups participate. “Rose Monday was first celebrated here in 1884,” says Alain Brock. The procession passes right through the town, and back again.

In Malmedy, the last Monday before Lent is also very special. Fabien Marichal explains: “On Monday, La Royale Malmédienne – guardians of Malmedy’s folk traditions – presents stories, spoken and sung in the Walloon dialect, on various stages in the city. These plays are funny anecdotes about events from the past year – a beautiful thing to behold!”

Carnival in Eupen is celebrated enthusiastically by the town’s residents and the broader community. Party-lovers come dressed up, and sing along boisterously with the DJs on the floats, and shout out the carnival greeting “Alaaf!” at every turn. Anyone who experiences it for the first time will be amazed and charmed by the fun, love and spontaneity radiating from both the participants and the audience. Everywhere there are crowds enjoying the sun or dancing.

One of these is Marc from Düsseldorf: “Carnival here is much more sociable and fun than in Germany,” he says. “The outfits, the people, the themes, everything is much less politically focused.” If he wants to celebrate carnival, he’ll come to Eupen.

The prize for the best costume in 2023 goes to France and her family. They are dressed as the comic-book prisoners the Daltons. They live in Verviers, 15km to the west, but come to Eupen to celebrate every year. “We try to choose something fun for our carnival costume each year. In previous years we’ve been clowns or Romans,” she says with a smile. “We try to join other parades in the region as well.”

After a successful final tour of the city, Prince Marco I. stands with pride and pleasure as he watches the children pick up the gifts that he has thrown into the crowds as he passed. He is already trying to collect his memories. This is what it's all about: singing and dancing together, in a way that only the people of East Belgium know how. The floats can now return to their storage places – ready to do it all again next year. Alaaf!

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