Processional Giants and Dragons
in Belgium and France
 

The traditional procession of giants and dragons encompasses an original ensemble of festive rituals. The event essentially consists of a procession of huge effigies of giants, animals or dragons within the scope of popular manifestations and ritual representations.

img

These cultural expressions first appeared in the urban religious processions of sixteenth century western Europe and today still are emblems and provide a sense of identity to certain Belgian towns (Ath, Brussels, Dendermonde, Mechelen and Mons) and French towns (Cassel, Douai, Pézenas and Tarascon) where they remain living traditions. These giants and dragons are large-scale models measuring up to nine metres in height and weighing up to 350 kilos. They represent mythical heroes or animals, trades or contemporary local figures, historical, biblical or legendary characters. St George fighting the dragon is staged in Mons, Bayard the horse from the Charlemagne legend parades in Reuze Papa and Reuze Maman, popular family characters parade at Cassel. The wide range of performances, often mixing secular procession and religious ceremony, varies from town to town. However, there is one constant: each expression follows a precise ritual and the giant is often related to the history, legend or life of the town.

Giants and dragons also animate other popular festivals where they are the main actors at least once a year, as each giant has its specific feast day. These gigantic effigies are carried by one or two people, who are hidden inside. They act out historical scenes and dance in the streets to the accompaniment of fanfares and costumed people. The crowd follows the procession, and many help in the preparations at different stages of the festival. The construction of a giant, and its ongoing maintenance, requires weeks of work and know-how in many techniques given the range of materials used.

Although these expressions are not threatened with immediate disappearance, they do suffer from a number of pressures such as the major changes to the town centres, the increase in the number of performance attractions that are unrelated to the giants but which do attract tourists to the detriment of the popular, spontaneous nature of the festival. The success of these other attractions and the lack of proper management slow down the processions and disturb the festival’s structure, harming its vitality and dynamism.