Limoux Mardi Gras Masks & Pierrot Costumes Have Roots in Pagan Rituals Marking Spring Equinox
Limoux, a medieval little city of the Languedoc in the South of France, is the setting of the strangest of carnivals. In France, Limoux is famous for its subtle bubbly wine, the Blanquette, invented ages before Champagne was even born. It is a country of strong traditions, of friendship and close-knit communities. For centuries, it has been home to one of the most picturesque carnivals of the world, and certainly one of the oldest. Some say that the tradition goes back to the ancient Roman feast to the god Bacchus, but the first carnival in Limoux probably started sometimes during the Middle Age, in the 14th century. At that time, the little fortified city counted a great number of flour mills. It was customary to bring some flour to a nearby monastery, as a form of income tax.
The millers started to celebrate this on the Mardi Gras, the last Tuesday before the Lent season, a Catholic fasting period of penitential preparation leading to the Passion of Christ. In mock fashion, they would mime the giving away of the flour by throwing sweets and flour on the gathered crowds. They would enter Limoux through one fortified door, circle round the main plaza, then exit the city through another door and make their way to the monastery.
The tradition lasted through the centuries, but after World War II, it became more organized. The millers are still the leading group, but they are now surrounded by almost thirty different bands, all parading round the city in a very precise choreography.
Except for the first band, the Meuniers (millers), who is a reminder of the ancient tradition, all the bands are disguised as Pierrots, a French pantomime character inspired by the Italian Commedia dell’Arte. They are called Las Fecos in the Occitan language. The spirit of the festivities is bathed in elegance and finesse. The costumes are colorful and sophisticated, never garish or vulgar. They carefully follow the color scheme of the band. All the fecos hold a carabene, a long flexible stick that they wave at the crowd in a very subtle and gracious way, in the manner of a magical wand.
A Day At Limoux Carnival
On its set day, the whole band begins with an early communal breakfast of traditional foods, special sausages, boudins, grilled ribs and wine. They fill up before a very long day, performing three times at 11:00 am, 4:30 pm, and 10:00 pm. After breakfast, everybody gets ready, putting on their costume. Following the tradition, they start their parade at one of the numerous cafes around the square. After a traditional drink of the bubbly Blanquette, they set out on the throbbing rhythm of the local brass band. The pace is slow and stately, to give the public plenty of time to admire the costumes.
For the morning outing, each band chooses a theme in connection with the news or a particular event. It could be the Tour de France, the presidential election or a scandal hitting the news. The purpose is to make a parody of a serious matter. Everybody dresses up, men as women, women as politicians, children as TV celebrities…. It is customary to start the parade at the main bar of the square surrounded by deep medieval arcades. There are five bars on the plaza, so the parade will make five stops, dancing and pranking in between.
The Limoux Mardi Gras Carnival is one of the longest in the world, running for three months. Photos: Top row: Unuaiga, Creative Commons; Botton row: Luc Greliche
The afternoon outing is much more serious, it is the official outing of the Fecos with their beautiful Pierrot costumes. Amongst the most attractive are the Arcadiens, the Monte-Cristo or the women’s band, the Fennos. The circuit is the same, from one bar to the next, but the pace is slow, almost languorous. Two or three experienced Fecos serve as band leaders. Using their carabene to give the pace to the dancers and musicians, they gracefully wave raised arms at the audience. Here and there, they draw arabesques with the carabenes, using them to tease a spectator, dancing to one joyful tune then to a sad one. The following dancers wave their wands in the same manner but they hold bag of confettis, throwing these tiny scraps of white paper on the crowd like the millers’ flour of ancient times.
The evening outing is the most dramatic. With winter days being short, it is dark in the city. The evening parade is similar to the day parade, but is illuminated by entorches, or huge torches made of natural resin. The acrid smell and the flickering light make for a whimsical atmosphere of weird silhouettes, waving their silky sleeves in strange shadows, the eyes becoming dark and unseen under the white masks.
It all turns into an eerie pagan show, drowned under the showers of bright white confetti falling like snowflakes on the ground. In the background, the music stays the same, almost monotonous in its brassy rhythm. All around the plaza, the bars are bright and warm, offering welcoming stops for the weary Fecos, or watering down their thirst in the omnipresent bubbly wine. As the day ends, the pace of the tunes slows down, along with the gestures and dances too. It is well after midnight and everybody is tired. They all know time has come to put the costumes away until next year.
Limoux Carnival & Heritage of Pagan Rites
As a heritage of the pagan rites, the carnival marks the passage from winter to spring, from death to life. These metaphors are celebrated with a general chaos symbolizing the rebirth of everything. Masks, costumes, dances and make-up blend all the identities in a festive mess. One is allowed to abandon his normal self to become another, with all the license involved. In the antique pagan rituals, the coming out of the dark months was celebrated with sacrifices. In the Middle Age, these traditions were Christianized and disguised to blend in a syncretic celebration. The pagan feast became a way of atonement, ending the cold winter was now a matter of doing away with sins and errors. What better purificator than fire? So fire is used to end it all.
The puppet Carnival, symbol of the dark and the sin, is offered to its judgment and finally burned, like in the ancient sacrifices to the gods. But as in Nature, it will be reborn next year so it can all start again. In Limoux, His Majesty Carnival is judged on the final Sunday, during the incredible Nuit de la Blanquette. All the 29 bands unite for this frenzied night. The sentence is given in the Occitan language and it is always the same. A gigantic pyre is lit on the central square. The last band to have paraded (the following year it will leave its turn to the next one) is designated to throw the puppet in the fire. Then, as the flames illuminate the old stone arcades, all hundreds of Fecos gather and dance around the pyre, singing “adiu, pauvre carnaval“, throwing masks and carabenes in the fire, as to return to real life. A good thing being done, everybody scatters about, joining in the bars to drink the Blanquette to blissful oblivion.
Occitanie Carnival Costumes Span From Simple Mask To Elaborate Regalia
Anybody can don a costume during the carnival. As opposed to the Fecos, those who participate as individuals rather than in a band are called the Goudils and come last in the parades, behind the musicians. They are allowed to come in whichever attire they choose, even the most simple. A bland mask might even be enough to partake of the mystical atmosphere.
But another thing altogether is the long preparation involved for the official bands. The women gather in secret rooms to make the costumes, in precious and heavy satin and gauze. Pants, overalls and ruffled collars are made up in exactly the same fabric. The rule is that no flesh or hair must show. The Fecos wear handmade very fine gloves of the very same color as the general costume. The head is covered with a tight hood of the same fabric, leaving only the eyes to make visual contact with the crowd. The white masks are delicately painted to match the costume. Each band wears a particular style of hat demanding just as much care. The making of the costumes takes months and must be kept totally secret to guarantee the surprise effect on the big day.
Meanwhile, the men have to go out by the sea to gather long reeds to make the carabenes. It has to be of even length, very straight, strong but flexible to lend itself to the dance. Back home it will be decorated with narrow strips of ribbon, ending in a glittery feather. The time has come to make the entorches, gathering resin and using an obscure recipe passed down through generations. Throughout the year, the bands rehearse the parades, the gestures, the dances. Children are taught the gimmick from a very young age, and some schools even include the carnival dancing in their program! The brass bands are just as busy, making sure they master the traditional tunes and tutoring young musicians to join in. But nobody would dream of begrudging all these time-consuming tasks. The folly of carnival is something serious, mostly kept in families or tightly-knit social groups. And most probably why, year after year, masks, music and dance keep invading the old arcades of Limoux.
Did you enjoy the images in this article? For more stunning photos of France, visit the websites of photographers Luc and Mathieu Greliche: luc.greliche.free.fr/Luc_Pages/luc.html and luc.greliche.free.fr.