Written by Kaleb Houle-Lawrence – high school Intern

Winter in Québec is incomplete without the Carnaval, which typically runs from late January to early February over a span of 17 days. Over the course of Carnaval, guests can experience the historic city of Québec through the lens of celebration. Carnaval is the largest winter festival in the world, attracting over a million tourists and citizens annually. For children in Québec, Carnaval is comparable to Christmas. Many of the symbols of Carnaval are among the most important to Québecois children, specifically Bonhomme Carnaval. This festival is a crucial part of Canada’s economic prosperity as well, having been re-developed in the 1950s to specifically facilitate the economy following The Great Depression. Québec is one of the few walled cities left on the continent, and considered a UNESCO World Heritage site. Over the years, Carnaval has adapted to attract more people and immerse attendants in a full Canadian experience, but its French roots are always a central focus. 

The roots of this all-out winter festival stem back to the colonial period of New France in this region. Originally, the Carnaval was an event to celebrate the end of winter and feast before Lent. Mardi Gras, a French cultural tradition in modern-day Louisiana, has similar origins as a festival of feasting before Lent (Mardi Gras is the topic of next week’s blog, so make sure to check back for all the details). Carnvaval is an annual event that first began in 1894. However, it was interrupted by both World Wars. After that, the Great Depression halted all excessive rituals which would have been too expensive for the government, which was already dealing with a diminishing economy. In 1954, the Carnaval made a massive re-entrance into the field of festivals. The initial desire was to increase the economy following the Great Depression. Eventually, though, the Carnaval became a way to bring tourists to Québec and give them an immersive and memorable experience. 

Ice Palace of Bonhomme

Fundraising is an important part of planning for the Carnaval, which is why the government encourages entrepreneurs to introduce ideas through the Duchess Competition. Originally, this competition was used to elect the 7 most beautiful women in Québec (one from each district). The 7 women were then put into the final round of competition and the winner was elected Queen of the Québec Carnaval. Now, 7 female entrepreneurs are selected (one from each district) and asked to present their fundraising proposals to the city. The entrepreneur with the best proposal then wins the honor to oversee fundraising for the overall event. 

2005 Effigy

One of the most crucial components of Carnaval is the large snowman mascot, named Bonhomme (short for Bonhomme de neige, or snowman) Carnaval. According to some sources, Bonhomme is just as adored with Québecois children as Santa Claus. Bonhomme, pictured below, traditionally wears a red hat, black buttons, and a traditional French Canadian ceinture fléchée (or arrowed sash). Allegedly, Bonhomme is given the key to the city and exerts total control over Québec for the 17 days of the festival. The 7-foot-tall snowman was declared as the mascot of Carnaval in 1955. Since then, an effigy has been recreated every year as both a souvenir and the admission key. Effigies are small ornament-like souvenirs that depict Bonhomme in some way (see the 2005 effigy below)and act as tickets into any Carnaval event. Each year a new effigy is developed. The effigies are purchased on opening night, which also has other festivities including live French music and a fireworks display. Models of Bonhomme’s arrow sash are also a hot commodity with guests of the Carnaval. 

Bonhomme dancing on his Float

Once the Carnaval is underway, the schedule is packed full of engaging activities for visitors. Snow sculptures are one of the most iconic attractions of the Carnaval, and professional sculptors can be seen creating these sculptures along the streets and in open fields. Although a winter-long activity, ice skating at Place d’Youville is a must-do activity. Children and adults skate on the frozen pond in front of the historical building. The pond remains open from mid-November until mid-March. Bonhomme’s Ice Palace, his official place of residence, is a large ice-sculpture castle that is open for tours during the day. At night, it becomes a night-club and houses some of the largest parties of the festival. The fairgrounds, which cover the Plains of Abraham, contain popular fair rides like the Ferris wheel, slides, and bouncy houses. As always, a Québec winter twist is added to the attraction with activities such as snow rafting and interactive games. One of the most popular interactive games is human foosball. 

Parades throughout the historic city of Québec occur both during the day and the evening. The streets of Québec are covered with decorations, including lights and flags from both Canada and Québec, which line the path for parades of floats and people. Various dance parties occur throughout the city as well, the most popular being in Bonhomme’s Ice Palace. A Masquerade Ball is held annually at the Château Frontenac. The Plains of Abraham, a historic site of Québec, is home to an annual sleigh ride and dog sled race. Lumberjack and Viking Competitions also occur in the city, celebrating traditional winter activities. One of the most insane challenges at the Carnaval is the Snow Bath Challenge, which sees visitors in bathing suits covering themselves in snow to see “who can bear the harsh cold of Québec.”

Queues de Castor – Beaver Tails

Food is an important part of the Carnaval, where local vendors sell popular winter treats. Among these are Queues de Castor (or Beaver Tails), which are long donut-like treats covered in frosting and candy toppings. These are comparable to fried dough at US fairs. Maple taffy is often presented as a make-it-yourself event, in which visitors can pour maple syrup into blocks of ice. Poutine is also a famous Canadian dish available at the Carnaval. These French fries, which have been smothered in gravy and topped with cheese curds, are even popular in the Northeastern United States. Tourtière, a French-Canadien meat pie (commonly known as pork pie in New England) popular during the winter months, is also a Carnaval treat sold by many vendors. Caribou is a traditional Carnaval drink. Caribou is composed of 3 parts wine, 1 part liquor (usually a spirit) and shots of maple sugar and syrup and often served in glass made from ice. Throughout the Carnaval, many vendors set up to sell other foods as well, both Canadian traditional foods and international cuisine. Obviously, the Carnaval of 2021 will be different, but the history of Carnaval is still rich with brilliant cultural traditions and gems. 

Meet Bonhomme Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JaSgJrbdFI8

Carnaval 2016: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXu-FZS2wMM