The Limoux Carnival – claimed to be the world’s longest-lasting – gets under way this month in the Aude. Festivities will take place every Saturday and Sunday between now and March.
Groups of people, called bandes, wear traditional white pierrot costumes and masks and perform three times a day under the medieval arches of the main square, Place de la République.
Yvan Efratas heads the Association pour le Développement de Limoux par le Carnaval (ADLC) and said: “One of the reasons why it takes place over such a long time is that there are 10 official bandes, and one performs each week up until Palm Sunday.”
The performances begin with three members leading the rest of their group towards one of the square’s five cafés, accompanied by musicians, dancing and scattering spectators with confetti. Their popularity is shown by how many masked people, called goudils, are following behind them.
Carnival festivities, including singing, are carried out in Occitan, the traditional language of the area, which has various dialects spoken throughout the south of France.
The morning performance is devoted to mocking a local news story. The afternoon performance is slower- paced and the evening one takes place by torchlight.
The carnival ends on La Nuit de la Blanquette, the week before Palm Sunday, so-named after Limoux’s fizzy wine. The “King of the Carnival” (a straw mannequin) is tied up and burnt. Soon after, the pierrots throw their masks into the fire and complete a ritual of chanting and dancing three times before the carnival finishes.
Mr Efratas added: “To participate in the carnival is more than a tradition, it is an honour. Visitors and tourists are invited to join in, but they must follow a strict protocol and stay behind the bandes.
“But without spectators, there is no carnival. It’s very important for those who are performing to be seen and to be appreciated.”
Legend has it the carnival started in the 14th century when millers celebrated paying their taxes to the Prouilhe monastery, an early Dominican site, by going through the town with musicians, throwing sugared almonds and flour.
Another theory is that the carnival dancing originated from the movements of wine growers treading on grapes to make juice.
There are several other carnivals in France, which generally reach their peak on Mardi Gras, which falls in February this year, when it was the custom throughout history to eat a last meal of rich foods before Lent.
At the Carnaval de Nice in February, the city’s streets are filled for 15 days by more than a thousand musicians and dancers from all across the world, attracting a million visitors.
The main sights are the giant mannequins on the floats and the Flower Parade on the Promenade des Anglais.
About 100,000 flowers are thrown into the crowd, of which 90% are produced locally. This year’s theme is Roi des Médias (“King of Media”).
Another carnival of note in February is the Carnaval de Paris, dating back to the 16th century but which halted then restarted in 1993.
Basile Pachkoff, head of organisers Droit à la Culture, said: “For a carnival to exist, it must be organised.
“There were organisational issues that meant that our carnival temporarily vanished.”
Last year there were more than 4,000 people in the parade.
In the north, events such as the Carnaval de Granville in Normandy, and Carnaval de Dunkerque in Nord-Pas-de-Calais originated from feasts held for sailors and fisherman before heading to Newfoundland and Iceland.