Northern France Tourism : official website

Merrymakers at the Dunkirk Carnival

How the Dunkirk Carnival began

The origins of the Dunkirk Carnival go back to the start of the 17th century. The earliest known official document noting these festivities is dated 16 January 1676.
At the time, Dunkirk was a port servicing cod fishing off Iceland. These risky expeditions would last six months. Many men never came back. Because of the danger, the shipowners would pay the fishermen an advance before departure. Insurance for the families. They also laid on a feast ("Foye"), a chance to let off steam before braving the sea. From the "Foye", the "Visschersbende" (band of fishermen in Flemish) originated. It originally took place over three days ending on Ash Wednesday - the beginning of Lent. The tradition remained, these are the Joyful 3.

Archive photo of a band of fishermen during the "visschersbende"
  • Band of fishermen - with Cô-Gnac the Drum Major and the "visschersbende"- 1912
  • © Page Facebook - Dunkerque et environs début et milieu du XXe siècle
Everyone brings energy and imagination to the fun atmosphere - keeping alive the soul of Dunkirk

And today? What's happened to the Joyful 3?

Originally, the festivities were held at an inn. Gradually, toward the end of the century, the fishermen and their families disguised themselves and took to the streets.
Today, the excitement continues. The people of Dunkirk proudly take part in the Carnival. Tens of thousands attend the festival and join in the fun that grips the whole town. The "bandes", usually taking place on the Sunday afternoon, consist of a huge procession with everyone singing traditional songs. Everyone brings energy and imagination to the fun atmosphere - keeping alive the soul of Dunkirk, thus the "masquelour" proudly goes forth, chest out, head up, and umbrella held high.

Photo of a carnival-goer blowing soap bubbles
  • Make-up, costumes, a cascade of colour,this is the Dunkirk Carnival!
  • © Sarah ALCALAY
Carnival-goers on the beach at Malo les Bains
  • Carnival-goers on the beach at Malo les Bains
  • © Sarah ALCALAY

the "masquelour" proudly goes forth, chest out, head up, and umbrella held high.

The Dunkirk Carnival lexicon

The "Clet'ches" and the accessories

The costumes are the hallmark of the Carnival. Although many of the men dress up as women with a hat, skirt and suspenders, the choice of costume is an expression of freedom of choice

The "Chapelles"

These are "friendly houses" where people stop by for a drink or even something to eat. Ideal for a rest before, during, or after the "Bande", or before going to Ball.

The "Bande"

This is the name given to the Carnival procession. Behind the musicians and the drum major, carnival-goers line up in tight rows and sing traditional Carnival songs.

The "rigodon", the end of the Carnival

The culminating event of the day (7:00pm) bringing together the carnival-goers at a central location.
Chaos then takes over at a devilish pace, until everyone is lustily singing the "Cantate à Jean Bart", an anthem that the people of Dunkirk sing hand in hand,kneeling with hat off, in homage to the valiant privateer.

The Dunkirk Carnival lexicon

The "Rigodon"

The culminating event of the day (7:00pm) bringing together the carnival-goers at a central location. Chaos then takes over at a devilish pace, until the "Cantate à Jean Bart".

The "Chahut"

At the Drum Major's signal, the brass band strikes up a lively tune. The first rows come together and hold back the thousands of pushing and jumping carnival-goers.