In areas of the world with a predominantly Catholic population, Carnival (spelled Carnaval in France) is the festive period prior to Lent, the time of prayer and penance before Easter. During Lent, people traditionally abstained from eating meat, which may have led to the word “carnival” (essentially a derivative from Latin and meaning “removal of meat”). People also refrained from consuming dairy, eggs, other fatty foods, and sugar.
If you don’t get to eat meat or other goodies for six weeks, then you might have the urge to load up as much as possible beforehand. Let the party begin! Laissez les bon temps rouler!
Mardi Gras translates to “Fat Tuesday,” and it is traditionally the last night of feasting before the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Carnaval celebrations extend beyond the single day of Mardi Gras to cover a longer time, as much as two months in some areas.
Carnaval is a public, community-wide celebration with a taste of the circus, and it generally includes parades, masks and costumes, alcohol and debauchery, dancing, feasting, and game-playing. Traditional carnaval dishes in France include crêpes, beignets,and waffles.
Some of the big, famous carnavals are in Rio, Venice, New Orleans, Tenerife, Binche and Nice, although there are celebrations large and small the world over. We visited the nearby town of Limoux for their splendid carnaval, with six parades per weekend, every weekend from early January until some time in March. I’ve included some photographs from Limoux at the end of this letter.
And today I bring you a glimpse of the carnaval celebrations in Bize-Minervois, staged in four acts.
Some time in January our local social club, Lou Recantou, which I had joined mainly for the weekly hikes, announced that the group’s costume theme for this year’s Carnaval festivities would be the 1970s. I really didn’t know what was involved in this event, and I certainly didn’t include 1970s-era clothes in my luggage, so I figured I’d be a happy onlooker, camera in hand.
My friend Maryse asked me one day if I would be participating, and I said I didn’t think so because I had no costume. The look on her face told me all I needed to know: I’d given a pathetic excuse, and we’d be finding me a costume. A few days later, she invited me to go with her to a friend’s house, and thus began the first of the four splendid little adventures that combined to create my first Carnaval in Bize.
Maryse’s friend Eliette and her sister were waiting for us, a pile of clothes filling the dining room table. There was plenty of chatter—all in French, of course—as clothes were held aloft for inspection. Lots of clucking, lots of laughter, and me wondering what I’d let myself in for. We finally found a few pairs of pants for me to try on, and I ended up with a remarkable pair in purple plaid. The game was on!
In short order, we found a top that was splattered with flowers, and then I was handed a floral headband in hot pink, a gold necklace made up of tiny peace signs, and various other tidbits that had me humming “If you’re going to San Francisco … ”
The hard work done, we all sat down to coffee and cookies and conversation. I smiled and nodded a lot. Another friend showed up and gave her approval to my costume. Maryse and I left in time for me to dash off to my French class, where no one mentioned the vocabulary for costume parties.
I had some ideas for ways to improve my costume, and I enlisted the help of cousin Sharon, who was on her way over for a visit. Her daughter Anne really came through with a couple of great additions: a blonde wig and giant pink sunglasses. Sharon was with me when I found some fabulous trim to add to the hem of each pant leg. I’d hoped to find some of the big, fat, fuzzy yarn we tied our hair with back in the real 1970s, but had no luck with that.
On the day of Carnaval, I braided my blonde wig and added a brightly-hued feathery thing to one braid. I donned the ensemble, including two peace-sign necklaces, and I also slathered on some make-up. Here’s my look:
A few days after my costume was selected, Maryse sent me a text to invite me to join her for some activity with the Recantou group. I didn’t understand what it was, and then I didn’t understand her explanation, but I went anyway, not knowing if I was underdressed, overdressed, or supposed to bring something I hadn’t brought.
Another friend drove us to the appointed place, and we arrived to find two vehicles and a bunch of fun-lovin’ folks from the club. It turned out that this was the appointed day to decorate the two cars that would accompany us in the Carnaval parade.
But before getting to work, there were cakes and wine. Makes the work that much more fun, hein? We all stood around chatting and eating and drinking, and then someone clapped hands and it was time to get down to work.
Several large bags of crêpe paper flowers appeared, and we all tucked in to apply the flowers to various parts of the two cars. One of the cars is a 2CV I’ve seen around town, and it turns out to be owned by an acquaintance, Paul, who gave me a ride in it when he needed to run home for ribbon.
While we all attached flowers to the cars, I learned a delightful little twist on the 70s offering of “Peace.” It turns out, at least here in Bize during this year’s Carnaval season, that if someone saw a peace sign, they would instantly (and rather proudly) burst out, ”Peace and Love!” Except all three words were run together into one exuberant word with an exclamation point: “PEACEANDLOVE!” And people were saying it a lot, because peace signs were all over the place. On Car Decoration Day, there was a big peace sign being attached to the hood of one of the cars, and people were walking around gleefully shouting “PEACEANDLOVE!” at each other.
Miss Carnaval. First, note that she isn’t “Mademoiselle Carnaval,” but “Miss Carnaval.” As usual, I didn’t really know what I was in for, but Maryse had arranged for me to join her and Claude at an evening event that would eventually include dinner, and sometimes that’s all it takes to get me to do something.
We arrived at the salle des fêtes (party room), the large space that is used for public events here in town, to find it filled with eight-person folding tables and a lot of persons to fill those tables, and we squeezed into the last three seats at our table.
There was plenty of chatting and visiting, plus my first clue about the evening: a lot of giggling teenage girls. Eventually, the emcee came out on stage and tried to get people to be quiet and listen to him. A younger fellow joined him, and had even worse luck being heard. This crowd was here to party.
Then things got going with a bang, as the five contestants for Miss Bize came strutting out from backstage, one at a time, to mince along the aisle-turned-catwalk through the middle of the room. Lots of cheers and applause, especially from each girl’s family table. The five strutting girls were followed by four young men dressed as cheerleaders, who performed a mildly bawdy routine along the same “catwalk.”
At this point it occurred to me to have a look at the program, and I discovered that there were to be six rounds of this combination. Oh, dear. The catwalk action included a different outfit for each round, generally consisting of formal and casual dresses, plus one round that involved Halloween-like costumes, each followed by the same young men doing various things dressed as women.
The pièce de resistance was the final round, in which the girls were dressed in wedding dresses and escorted by the cross-dressing young men, now playing at being grooms (with lipstick). I am at a loss for words.
We also had two rounds of much younger girls walking the catwalk, also dressed in mini-wedding dresses for their second and final display. Still no words.
After that came the voting and the eating. We dined on duck breast and french fries and wine, and discussed who should win. The winner was announced, shwag bags were handed all around, the teenage girls turned their giggles to shrieks, and then we went home. We would see Miss Carnaval again in two days, during the parade.
On parade day, Maryse came to my house for the final tweaks to our costumes, and then we walked around the corner to the Recantou designated meeting place. The cars were there, and perhaps no surprise, wine was being served. It was around 2:30. We managed to corral a good part of our group to pose next to the 2CV for a group photo before we all walked to the staging area for the parade.
I did not know what to expect, but what I do know is that I had no idea there would be so many participants and so many floats! It felt like the entire town was massed on that little back street, awaiting the start of the parade.
We were all feeling pretty giddy—maybe the early sloshes of wine helped—because the weather was stunningly, warmly perfect, with not the faintest whiff of a breeze to be found. Many of us were actually hot, but that sort of added to the ambiance.
People were milling around, checking out each other’s costumes, posing for selfies with their friends. The giant town party had begun, and everyone was feeling festive.
Two of my favorite groups played off the town name of Bize. There was the group called “Thriller Zom*Bize,” which had remarkably detailed costumes showing frightful blood and gore at its very best. We also had the group of parents and children, dressed as bees (Bize Bees?), which is kind of funny since that’s an English word and the French word is abeille, which does not rhyme with Bize. More wine, please. Or is that “plize” ?
The parade got going, with a little confusion about the ordering of the groups. Happily, we found ourselves placed between two quite good percussion groups, which meant that we had lively and danceable music throughout the afternoon. I took full advantage of this, and spent the next two hours dancing my way through the parade.
I think we were all a bit surprised by the crowds lining the parade route. It rather made us feel like rock stars, or astronauts, or World Series champs, especially with all the confetti that was flying around. It really added to the festive feeling. Kids darted in and out of the parade, selfies were taken, people waved to friends, and everyone was smiling.
When the parade was over, we went to the salle des fêtes, and that was when I hit the wall. I was suddenly and overwhelmingly bone-tired. So I begged off and went home for a little bit of rest, because an hour and a half later I was due for dinner with our Recantou group, still dressed in costume.
Around 40 of us squeezed into the Recantou headquarters for a delicious and convivial dinner. Spirits were still high, the laughter and joking still going at full speed. And we were all still dressed as hippies. It was thoroughly and completely wonderful, and I happily basked in the warm glow of a crazy day well-spent with wonderful people.
And that was my first Bize Carnaval.
From the Carnaval of Limoux