Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since November 2005, processional giants are a tradition and the pride of the French Northerners – the Chtimis – who are always keen to add more height and relief to the flat lands of their country – as evidenced by the many belfries which seem built to rise through the clouds. Is it this taste for height that gave birth to this gigantic community, now about 600 members strong?
These huge wicker manikins – human or animal figures – were born to tell real and fictional stories – their storie – to the street, but also and above all to dance and parade whenever the opportunity arises. Between two parades, to cheer up these manikins’ silent life, their parents, their creators invent all kinds of parties, more intimate – baptisms, marriages, births – which become opportunities to invite one another to the sound of the fanfares and to perpetuate the tradition; it also contributes to the sometimes-stigmatized partygoer reputation of the Northerners.
The giant completes the procession of carnival figures which are the staple of our pagan feasts: big heads, floats, petticoat-horses, dragons, disguises, costumes or just masks… born out of human imagination in order to entertain and sometimes cover up.
Birth of a tradition
There are many hypotheses on the origin of these carnival creatures, but the earliest ones were probably built in Portugal around the 13th century. From there, the tradition could have well spread to the Iberian Peninsula, as evidenced by the tradition Catalonia prides itself on. Therefore, one can easily assume that, three centuries later, the Spanish domination might have pervaded in the Northern provinces thus contributing to the arrival of the first giants in Flanders. Anyway, the first giants of the North appeared at the heart of the festive processions, in the 16th century in Cassel, Steenvoorde or Douai, as evidenced by the archives.
In 1530, the procession dedicated to Saint-Maurand – Patron Saint of the city of Douai – was exceptionally large in order to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Cambrai also called Paix des Dames (French: “Peace of the Ladies”). The creation of one biblical, mythological or allegorical representation was entrusted to each of the thirty-four local Guilds of Craftsmen to mark the event. This is how the basket makers built the first wicker basket giant. The tradition was born.
Zooming in on a Giant
While the tall, slender Hispanic giants are built on a chair-like structure – an expression that speaks for itself – the giants of the North are characterized by their enormous wicker basket structure. This specific structure gives an original conic aspect that can be observed particularly in France and Belgium. The giants’ carrier – who will walk and dance – slips inside this basket.
A giant depends on a wide range of characteristics, mainly concerning size: less than two meters for the smallest often used to teach children how to carry them, a colossus such as Mr Gayant de Douai can reach more than eight meters.
Then, whether laughing or grimacing, shabby or impeccably dressed, realistic or a caricature, the character (or animal) must reflect the means, the goals and the talent of its creators. The large family has no shortage of originals and this variety shows a long-lasting tradition which remains a wonderful means of free expression.
Traditionally made of paper mâché, heads and arms can now be made of polyester: a more resistant material, it is weatherproof and quite light. The painting of the face, the hairstyle and the making of the dress bring a lot to the overall quality.
FOCUS: The Giant Bela Rada, a dancer from Serbia
A symbol of friendship between France and Serbia, Bela Rada represents a dancer of a traditional Serbian ballet. She was born from the passion of a small group from the suburbs of Lille for the folklore of the former Yugoslavia and she embodies the richness of both traditions: the procession of giant and the traditional dances of Serbia. Even though her size and weight remain comparatively modest (3.20 m/10.6ft and 32 kilos/70lbs), she is however one of the most finally crafted figures thanks to her four different costumes which required about four years and 5,000 hours of work: embroidery, weaving and clothing. His « kum d’honneur » – godfather – is none other than the famous musician Goran Bregovic.
Creators and carrier, the Pygmalions of the Giants
Over the past twenty years, the renewed interest in this tradition has fostered some vocations in professional: the « giant builders » who share a restricted market. At once an artist and a craftsman, the creator must reveal multiple talents such as sculptor, carpenter, basket maker, painter or even couturier: a whole range of know-how benefitting a creation which will remain unique. But this professional activity is far from exclusive and the associative world contributes a lot to the birth of giants, bringing even more aesthetic diversity.
The involvement goes well beyond the creation stage because once the giant is on the wicker basket, it needs feet that will give it life. All this is possible thanks to the dedicated carriers. They are the ones who will imagine the fate of the giants, write them a story that will include trips, parades and events; they will allow them not to slip into oblivion.
An exhausting pastime!
Caged in his wicker basket, the carrier’s goal throughout the procession is to fill the character with life: he walks around, he makes it dance and twirl, all the way to the frenzied and collective final scene called rigodon.
A carrier may carry as much as 80/90 kilos (176lbs/198lbs): the men are required to work as a team and take turns for the biggest and heavier scales. For Sieur Gayant de Douai for example, whose weight displayed on the balance reach some 360 kilos (793lbs), groups of six well-synchronized carriers slip into the huge structure to allow him majestically to cross the city.
However, this specific and tiring hobby is affected by a lack of vocations and many giants are reduced to walking around on wheels which are often essential for the survival of the giant, but which somewhat tarnish the image of tradition.
Last but not least, it is important to note that people in the North have been showing a real interest in this popular and secular tradition in the past few years, in which they like to show their common identity.
Written by Richard Wleklinski
Translated by Laurane Mandin
For further documentation:
- Quand la mer monte (2004) directed and starring by Yolande Moreau: This Cannes Film Festival award-winning movie is a feature film that poetically depicts the birth of the giant Irène in Steenwerck.
- The photographer Daniel Decoune provides an amazing portrait gallery taken during the festivities, in France and in Belgium: www.terre-de-geants.fr
- DAVID Francis, LE TOURNEUR D’ISON Claudine, Le réveil des géants (de Douai), Faut pas rêver collection, Hoëlbeke editions – France 3, 2002.
- FORT Michèle, WLEKLINSKI Richard, Géante Bela Rada, Chronique d’une naissance, Bela Rada Association, 2016 – Monograph on the creation of the giant dancer of Serbia
- TORPIER Gérard, Dictionnaire des Géants du nord de la France, Ravet-Anceau edition, 2008.
- La maison des géants de Ath – The house of the Giants (Belgium) – www.maisondesgeants.be
Photo credits: the photographs belong to the association Bela Rada and the photographer Daniel DECOUNE, they cannot be reproduced without authorization.