Carnival in France – Discover more about Mardi Gras and the carnival tradition in France

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Carnival in France is one of the great events in the French social calendar.  From the world-famous Carnaval De Nice to the herring-tossing exuberance of the Carnaval de Dunkerque, carnival season is celebrated across France.

But what makes it such a beloved event?

In this post, we explore why carnival season in France is one of the most anticipated cultural events of the year, and what makes it so special.

The French carnival tradition

Although carnival is celebrated globally, its origins are found in Europe and the Catholic liturgical calendar.

The endpoint of the carnival season is Shrovetide, Shrove Tuesday. It is the culmination of celebrations leading up to the Christian observance of Lent, the 40 days of fasting that begins on Ash Wednesday (Mercredi des Cendres).

In remembrance of Jesus fasting in the desert, Christians would abstain from overindulging in fatty foods during Lent. Mardi Gras (literally, ‘Fat Tuesday’) was the last chance to enjoy rich foods, especially meat. The word carnival derives from the Latin carne vale (goodbye to meat).

Fittingly for such a colourful festival, carnival took hold as the dark ages gave way to the medieval period. Possibly a pagan ritual, historical records show it was an established annual event from, at least, the 13th Century.

This annual celebration quickly spread across the Christian world and was later exported by colonial settlers. Hence the celebration of Mardi Gras in what was once known as New France, including New Orleans.

While Mardi Gras specifically celebrates the final day before Lent, the days and weeks preceding it were a period of extended celebration. These were the days once known in France as jours charnels (carnal days), now simply carnaval

Carnival in France today

Modern carnival in France is different from city to city: how long it lasts, when it begins, costume styles, and types of celebrations are all influenced by local tradition. Yet, there are a few things that any carnival in France have in common: food, fun, and frivolity.

Gorging on fatty meats is a thing of the past. And very few people fast during Lent. Yet carnival in France remains a festival of indulgence.

French carnival foods

Meat has been replaced by other fatty foods, notably the ubiquitous fried beignets (donuts). In common with the sometimes-confusing regional variety of French cuisine, they go by many different names across the country. From bugnes to fantaisies.  Sometimes flavored with vanilla or other sweet fillings, often just coated in sugar.

Carnival celebrations can start as early as Epiphany (6th of January) – the Christian feast day commemorating Jesus receiving gifts from the Magi (three kings). 

It is observed in France by consuming the much-loved galettes des Rois (King’s cake). A buttery pastry tart, typically filled with frangipane and topped with a golden (paper) crown.

Shared and enjoyed throughout the country, in every galette des roi there is hidden a tooth-cracking fève (translation: fava bean). Prizes were once awarded to whoever discovered it. Today, it is usually the prize itself, often a small figurine.

French carnival entertainment

While food is at the heart of carnival celebrations in France, for most it is simply about meeting friends and getting together for a good time.

Organized daytime and nighttime events often stretch over several weeks.

Expect less exuberance during family-friendly daytime events. At night, a little drunken revelry is welcome. Light shows and, sometimes, fireworks illuminate nighttime partying.   

Whatever time of the day you go, you will encounter all kinds of entertainment. From circus-style performers – stilt walkers, jugglers, dancers – to live music and traveling funfairs (fête foraine).  Costumes and masks (deguisement) further animate proceedings.  

La Grande Parade

La grand parade usually takes pride of place at any carnival in France. A procession of creatively designed floats, performance artists, and live bands snaking their way through the heart of the city.

The highlight of the parade is les chars du carnaval (the carnival floats). 

Les chars du carnaval are elaborately designed showpieces that draw inspiration from local and international culture. They often reflect pop culture. Political satire – a long-standing tradition in French culture – can see prominent politicians of the day lampooned. 

The work that goes into creating these hulking mechanical marvels is the culmination of many hands and many hours. L’atelier des Carnavaliers(carnival workshops)work throughout the year to construct intricate, often ingenious, creations.

The small city of Cholet, for example, boasts a carnival with 15 giant floats, 300,000 lightbulbs, and over 200 carnival riders. There is even one built merely to set on fire in a fiery spectacular that closes the carnival.

Adding to the energy and vibrancy of la grand parade are performers surrounding the carnival floats. From baton-twirling children to traditional marching bands, any performer who can take their art to the streets is found at their local carnival in France.

Getting the most out of la grand parade

While it sometimes pays to bag a prime spot early, long procession routes allow everyone to gain a birds-eye view. Expect locals to turn up with chairs, crates of beer, and picnics.

No carnival in France would be complete without confetti. And lots of it. Often sold in giant bags, confetti throwing is de rigueur. A giant headache for municipal cleaners, but a much-loved element of la grand parade.

Top tip: Buy your confetti in shops and supermarkets before arriving. It will save you a few euros.

In the streets around the parade, you will find food and drink stalls, alongside balloon sellers and toy vendors. Very often, there will be funfairs, games, and other forms of entertainment to enjoy.

With such a long history, you can expect a few lingering customs when attending a carnival in France.

One tradition that survives is crowning la reine du carnaval (the carnival queen). Usually found on the final float, the carnival queen will be the one wearing a tiara, sash, and flower garlands.

The biggest and best French carnivals

If you are wondering where you can see a good carnival in France, you do not have to look far. They take place in cities and towns all over France. The local tourist website is a good starting point. 

If you’re making the journey to France during carnival season, several carnivals are worth making a special visit for.  

The Carnaval de Nice is the biggest: two weeks of partying, attracting over a million visitors every year. One of the oldest – dating back to 1294 – it is the most illustrious carnival in France.

At the other end of the country, another famed celebration is Le Carnaval de Dunkerque. The normally grey, windswept coastal town is transformed during carnival season. Dating back to at least 1676, this carnival in France is known for flamboyant costumes and a ritual arm-in-arm ‘battle’ between chanting spectators. Famously, a proud seafaring and fishing heritage is honored by throwing smoked herring into the crowds. Don’t worry, they are vacuum-sealed before delivery!

For something a little different, the carnival in Annecy honors the Venetian carnival tradition, with elaborate masks adding to the atmosphere. Oddly enough, a Frenchman almost killed the original Venetian festivities, with the unsentimental Napoleon banning the Venice carnival in 1797. Today, both carnivals are thriving.

It is safe to say if you go at the right time of the year, there is a carnival in France just waiting to give you a warm welcome, a sugary beignet or two, and a guaranteed feast for the senses.

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