City Breaks

Carnival Fun in Dunkirk

Looking to start the year with some carnival fun? Head over to the French commune of Dunkirk for the Carnival of Giants.

Giants of Dunkirk's carnival

From early January through to March or the beginning of April, people from around the world gather in the quaint commune of Dunkirk , or Dunkerque, in Northern France, to celebrate the Carnival of Giants. My family and I love nothing more than joining the hordes of people who storm the streets wearing fancy dress, as they sing and dance with the giant puppets that glide along the main roads. If this sounds like your kind of event, then you'll love this handy guide I've put together, to help you make the most this wonderfully weird carnival. So, get your costume at the ready, and make the quick 35-minute journey across the Channel with Eurotunnel Le Shuttle today.

People preparing for the carnival
People preparing for the carnival

The story behind the carnival

There are a number of different tales behind the carnival's origin, so it's tricky to know where to begin. One version tells the story of Jean Bart, a French naval commander who is said to have saved the residents of Dunkirk from famine, and was therefore declared a hero, and the carnival's idol.

Another version tells the story of the Dunkirk residents bidding farewell to the local fisherman. People held mass banquets to say goodbye to the men, before they sailed to Iceland to spend a gruelling 6-months fishing for cod. During the 1960s, in honour of the fisherman, 1,100-pounds of herring were thrown from the Hôtel de Ville's balcony, right into the centre of the square below. Nowadays, plastic lobsters are more commonly used, so watch out from above!

The final story behind the carnival is the tale of Reuze Papa, a giant puppet. It was once tradition for every town in Flanders to have their own giant puppet, each with their own story. Dunkirk's puppet was named after the 7th Century pagan, Norseman Allowyn, a man that came to rob the locals, but ended up being converted and married off to a local woman. Since then, a giant 26-feet tall puppet version of Allowyn is brought out during the annual carnival, where he is joined by his giant wife, La Reuzinne, their children and six guards.

Carnival in full swing
Carnival in full swing

What to expect

The carnival is celebrated between Epiphany and Mardi Gras, with the final three days known as Les Trois Joyeuses, the biggest part of the festivities. Unlike many carnivals in Europe, the main parades do not include floats, but instead comprise of men dressed as women, women donning fancy costumes, and musicians, singers and dancers who march alongside the Reuze Papa puppets. People rally together to really be a part of celebrations, forgetting about social norms, showcasing solidarity and friendship, and seeing each other as the equals they are.

Arguably the best part of the carnival is the live music from the marching bands, where musicians, singers and dancers are led by a drum-major. Plenty of well-loved songs are played throughout the party, with a popular favourite being "Au Carnival on est Les Rois", which roughly translates as "we live like kings at the carnival."

In amongst the colourful decorations, face paint and flowers, the carnival marchers also carry vibrant umbrellas. Despite being a somewhat unusual choice for onlookers, there is a reason behind this apparent madness. Many say it's because the the residents of nearby Bergues, who often experienced bad weather, used to bring umbrellas with them to the celebrations. It's said that the umbrellas were originally paraded around as a way of mocking the people of Bergues, but they have since become a permanent feature of the carnival's festivities. So, be sure to keep an eye out for the many different types!

Instruments, flowers and umbrellas.
Instruments, flowers and umbrellas.

Sound like your kind of party?

If this post has got you inspired to visit Dunkirk for the Carnival of Giants, be sure to book your journey across the Channel with Eurotunnel Le Shuttle . It takes just 35-minutes from England to France, and it's only a scenic drive from the Calais terminal to the delightful Dunkirk, meaning there'll less time spent travelling and more spent preparing for the celebrations!