Groups of young masked children stroll through the streets, some armed, some wearing hats or wigs, many with painted faces. A colorfully dressed man is strapped to a pole and displayed high above the children. Once back at their camp, the children eat cakes, run and skip and dance to music. Finally they watch as the man is burnt at the stake, marking the end of the feasting.
What kind of strange ceremony is this? It’s a Carnaval celebration!
While everyone knows about the famous Carnaval festivals and parades in places such as Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans, Venice and Nice, among others, I wanted to tell you how it is celebrated in cities and towns in France. While towns have different community festivities and parades according to the region, the children celebrate at school.
French school children from kindergarten to high school go to school in costume for Mardi Gras. Depending on the dates of winter break, sometimes the celebration is actually on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, Mardi Gras, other years it is held the week before.
For middle and high school students, it’s a day of classes, with the added fun of wearing a disguise. They can participate in the costume competition, wearing a costume they have created themselves.
In kindergarten and elementary school, children and their teachers dress up for the day, part of which is devoted to Mardi Gras festivities.
In 2004, my daughter was dressed as the horse-headed man in Jean Cocteau’s Le Testament d’Orphée.
At my kids’ school, it was the youngest ones, those in kindergarten (Ecole Maternelle) who paraded through the neighborhood and since lots of parents were needed to accompany so many young children, I volunteered every year that my kids were in kindergarten. (Ecole Maternelle is open to children aged 2-6, so kids spend two or three years there.)
The youngsters enjoyed getting out of the classroom to wear their costumes in the streets and being admired by any onlookers that happen to be about.
In 2005, my son Achilles was disguised as….Achilles!
Once back at school, the kindergartners were joined by the elementary school pupils for a party in the courtyard with music, dancing, food and general merriment.
It all ended just before the lunch break with the burning of Monsieur Carnaval who is placed in the center of the courtyard and burnt at the stake, marking the end of the feasting, for the following day was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.