Every year, the streets of Aalst in East Flanders (less than an hour drive from Brussels) get deluged with the carnival. At the beginning of Lent and for the three days preceding Ash Wednesday, the entire city lives in the rhythm of a never-ending party. The first signs of the carnival appear on Saturday. In the evening, a humorous city council hands over a key from the city to a mock Prince of the Carnival.
On Sunday, the celebration officially begins with a parade through the city. Locals prepare and carry up to one hundred floats while thousands of people in masquerade costumes dance on the streets. The entire event ridicules local and foreign politicians.
On Monday, the Gilles show their traditional Broom Dance on the Market Square—a ritual that chases away the ghosts of winter. Meanwhile, a mock Prince and his committee initiate a so-called “Onion Throw”: they throw onions to the crowd from the balcony of city hall. One hundred onions contain winning lottery numbers with the main prize being a golden onion.
On Shrove Tuesday, another parade occupies the streets of Aalst—the Parade of the Dirty Sissies. Men get dressed in female clothes, put on fake breasts and use various accessories—corsets, broken umbrellas, fur coats, lampshades, and birdcages with smoked herring. The celebration reaches its culmination when a huge puppet—the carnival effigy—is set on fire on the Grote Markt in the city centre.
The Aalst Carnival is related to the Binche Carnival but only in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. It has deep roots in the pagan end-of-winter celebrations. The first records of the carnival date back to 1443 but it has existed in its modern form since 1851 when it was held unofficially. The first time it was organised by the city council was in 1923. Since then, a special carnival committee has taken care of the Mardi Gras festivities. Also, since 2010, the Carnival in Aalst has been the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.