Le Carnaval de Dunkerque

**A shout out to my good friend and roommate, Anne, for capturing the vast majority of these photos. Be sure to check out her blog!

Northern France is a very special place. It is quickly becoming one of my favorite regions of France, mostly due to the wonderfully nice people and the proximity to no less than five countries. The north of France is known for being extremely friendly, and has quite a few distinctive cultural rights of passage– I feel like attending the Carnaval de Dunkerque (or Dunkirk Carnival) is definitely one of them. After attending Carnaval de Nice last year, I can honestly say that the differences between the north and the south of France continue to thrive.

The city of Dunkerque, which is located, quite literally, at the top of France, is home to the biggest and most popular carnival in northern France. Running from the end of January to the middle of March, les Dunkerquois as well as tourists go all out; dressing in drag is the most common and acceptable costume. To be honest, the carnaval has always been nothing short of a shit show, so ironically, it’s hard to trace back its historical origins. However, sources claim that the celebration started back in the 18th century, as a send-off to the fishermen heading out on the dangerous, icy waters to Iceland in search for cod. Rumor has it that the men started (and continue to) dress as women for carnaval so as to disguise themselves and therefore not be forced out to sea.


My colleague grew up in Dunkerque, and out of the pure goodness of his heart invited the lecteurs who help run les ateliers de langue (Language conversation workshops) at the Centre de Ressources en Langues (Language Resource Center) on campus to come stay at his mother’s mansion for the weekend and experience carnaval firsthand.

Carnaval 9To be frank, there is a lot– A LOT– of drinking involved with Carnaval. We started early, at 4 PM on the train. (It takes just over an hour to arrive on the normal-speed trains from Lille.)

Upon arrival, we immediately went to the neighboring costume store to buy final accessories. We then spent another quarter of an hour digging through the mountains of costumes in our colleague’s sister’s basement. Then of course, we spent hours primping and putting on make-up!



Thank you to my lovely friend and colleague, Edel, for your make-up and artistic talent. I feel like Effie from the Hunger Games.


The Sorority Squat, because of course.

Carnaval 12

My lovely roomies and I. We’re dudes.

Carnaval 11

My +1’s

We pre-gamed until about 12 midnight, until we finally left for the Dunkerque Ball. I rode laying across my friends in the back seat of my colleague’s car. Classy, I know– it seemed like a great idea at the time. (But don’t worry, we walked home.)

The ball was nothing short of unbelievable. Held at some sort of warehouse on the sea-side, there were at least a thousand people inside, along with multiple rooms with multiple bands playing, and of course, dancing and cheap drinks. Every single person in attendance was dressed up– it honestly felt like the Capitol during The Hunger Games.

Carnaval 15

This is known as the Le Rigadon, where everyone links arms, and gallops around the room in a circle. I took a tumble and lost my wig in the process.

Carnaval 1

We left just after 4:30 AM or so, and found ourselves back at our colleague’s mother’s house after 5 AM, slurping French onion soup, an après-carnaval tradition. After sleeping until 1 p.m., we found ourselves back in centre ville just after 3 PM, in time for a long promenade in the sun along the port, and of course the annual fish throwing (yes, you read that right).



Around 5 PM, we crowded in front of the belfry with hundreds of others who had managed to get themselves up and ready to go. Then, we crowded under the windows of city hall and attempted to catch falling cod, which was being chucked out the windows by the mayor and fellow employees (only Tom managed to catch one.)

Carnaval 7

Carnaval 2

Yes, someone is climbing a pole (thanks Anne for this epic shot.)

The other popular carnaval tradition is the zeutch, or kiss, on the mouth. Legend has it that back in the day, the only time when it was acceptable to cheat on your spouse was at the Carnaval– traditions live on! I had no less than 3 or 4 requests for zuetchs, mostly from drunk, middle-aged men, because of course.

If you have the chance to experience a carnaval celebration, do it. And do it right.

Have you ever been to carnaval? Leave me your craziest stories in the comment section.



10 thoughts on “Le Carnaval de Dunkerque

  1. I’m going to attend the Carnival in March. We are going to be there for a weekend and I wanted to attend the midnight ball but I don’t know where to get tickets for it. Please help me out !

    1. Have you tried Googling it? I know you used to have to buy tickets in person for the Saturday night ball, but there are some bars / restos who organise shuttles / tickets (ie: La Chapelle A Ma Tante in Lille– you can check out their Facebook page.)

  2. I wish the USA did something to celebrate Carnaval! It’s huge in a lot of countries in Europe and South America. Also Mardi Gras in New Orleans which is essentially the same thing. Not to mention Chinese New Year/Lunar New Year was this week so most of the world was celebrating something.

    In Madrid (not sure if this is a Spain wide thing), they do this weird thing to mark the end of Carnaval with the burial of a sardine. I don’t know why but people really get into it, with widows “crying” and all that jazz.

  3. Oh wow, that all sounds way too much for me these days! I went to the Carnivale de Nice when I was an assistant there, but that was more about watching parades and floats. It turns out there’s a lot of them in Belgium too – the Binche one sounds pretty cool if you’re still around next year.

  4. I went a few years ago. Once was enough for me. Someone stepped on my shoe laces causing me to fall. Such a scary scary moment. So grateful for my friends who were able to get me up before I was trampled.

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