Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The carnival in Aalst

Aalst (French: Alost) is a city on the Dender River, 19 miles northwest from Brussels. The city is at least 1100 years old and has approximately 80,000 inhabitants. The collective nickname for people from Aalst is ajuinen ("onions").

The city's most famous feature is its annual carnival festivities, the Carnaval Aalst, a celebration which dates back to the Middle Ages. It is held in the three days leading up to Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Next to the Gentse Feesten, the Carnaval Aalst is arguably the most famous street celebration in Belgium, with thousands of people from all over Belgium coming to take part in the festivities.

Carnaval Aalst 2010.

The central part of the celebration is the street parades. The floats and the costumes are just as colourful and imaginative as anything you'll see in Rio (although for obvious reasons, people don't dress as lightly in Aalst as in the Sambadrome in Rio). The parades on Sunday and Monday include about 200 floats.

Carnaval Aalst 2009.

Tuesday (dearie me, that's today!) has its own special tradition wherein the men dress up as women in corsets and fur coats, often with bird cages adorning their heads. This particular tradition is said to stem from a time when people were poor and costumes were expensive to make, forcing the men to dress up in their wives' old clothes instead.

A man happily enjoying the one day of the year when painting your
fingernails and wearing a bird cage on your head is
tradition rather than grounds for hospitalization. (Photo source)

Other traditions include the "Broom Dance" and the famous "Onion Toss", which takes place as the elected Carnival Prince throws candy to the crowds. One of the pieces is not candy, but an onion made from solid gold.

Bart De Wever making a personal appearance at the Carnaval Aalst.
(From this slideshow of the carnival)

Hopefully I'll get to be there myself next year. But don't expect to see me in nylon stockings and a fur coat.



  1. Hey, Thanks for the posting! It's informative. I have a Belgian pen-pal of sorts; he's been explaining this carnaval to me. Having been born and raised in the US--I had not idea about htis annual festivity. But I needed a tad more clarification. So thanks for that!


  2. Great post!

    We have something similar to the "onion toss" in Halle, called the "gouden krottenworp". This happens on "Krottenmaandag" (the last day of carnival). They throw down an expensive jewel from the top of the basilic and the lucky person who catches is can keep it ;)

  3. Whoah, I didn't know about that. why didn't we go? o_0

  4. Native of Ghent but grew up close to Aalst. An uncle of mine had a restaurant on the grand market square so we could see the parade in which they mock with events and famous people from a balcony rather than standing in the crowd along the street. It was always great, those carnival groups actually spend months and months preparing for the carnival, for some it is like a second job that takes several hours per day after working hours.

    The "Voil Jeanetten" in which they dress up as women is not much my thing. I find the porn pictures on their wagons a bit vulgar, but mainly the fact they throw glue-like stuff over bypassers is unpleasant. The main parade in which they all mock with (often political) events and people is superb however!