About This Festival
Medieval Meets Modern
Across Europe, you find festivals with historical roots that run so deep they seem to twine around a medieval mindset that feels a little out of place within the modern context of the contemporary European Union. As these carnivals go, the Festival of Giants is one of the most spectacular and visually grand. It evokes a Europe long gone, with origins that can be traced to a 9th-century military engagement. It includes crafts and artisan guilds and family ties that determine the manipulation of the giants at the heart of the celebration.
The city of Douai, near the shores of the North Sea, is the magnificent setting for an event that references many European cross-cultural currents. This is an area that has long been an interchange between the merchant guilds and barons of commerce who helped drive Europe from the Dark Ages into the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration.
It was local traders who brought riches to the city to provide patronage and funding for the artisans who created la famille Gayant (the Gayant family, the symbol of Douai). And it was local pride – a pride exacerbated by Douai's own linguistic tradition of the Picard language, a distinct dialect of French still spoken in the area – that forms the heart of the enormous community outpouring that manifests in crowds of roughly 100,000 for the yearly Fêtes de Gayant.
Here Be Giants
On the Sunday after July 5, Douali – and a sizable chunk of tourists – turns out for the three-day Festival of Giants. A Mardi Gras atmosphere prevails. Community organizations and similar groups get into costumes ranging from the medieval-inspired to Lady Gaga haute weird. Music is played, including an innovative bell organ connected to Douali's belfry, which sits above the iconic city hall. Street food is fried. An abundance of beer is consumed: While this is France, and wine is popular, the Nord department abuts Belgium and has a taste for brew.
The main event is the parade of the Gayant family, which consists of father Gayant, his wife Marie Cagenon, and their three children – teenage Jacquot, maiden daughter Fillon and baby Binbin.
Monsieur Gayant is the biggest giant around, towering over the crowds at 28 feet high and weighing in at approximately 815 pounds. He comes dressed in armor, with a sword in hand and a shield by his side, possibly because his image was inspired by the actions of Jehon Gelon, a 9th-century lord who liberated Douali from the Normans. The wicker frame of the statue was built by the local Basket Making Guild.
Marie Cagenon, built under the patronage of the "Guild of Fruiterers," is a comparatively slight lass, measuring 20 feet high and around 550 pounds. The rest of the "family" measures in at a relatively petite seven feet.
A 500-Year-Old Tradition
The procession started in 1479, although the current giants date to at least 1530. While there's a lot of partying and carrying on at the festival – a chance for the normal folk to blow off some steam – the march of the giants has a monarchial bent. When the Gayant family comes through town, the implication is that they are royalty inspecting their kingdom and basking in the adoration of their subjects. There's a mix of party and patriotism going on. Locals even make a big deal about kissing baby Binbin, which marks one as a "true child of Gayant."
How do these giants get around? It takes a lot of manpower. The honor of lugging around the giants goes to a guild of 53 porters drawn from a closed circle of some half-dozen local families. If you peak under the skirts and robes of the king and queen, you can see these white-clad human camels. They don't just move their lords and ladies – they dance them around and manipulate them in a surprisingly agile manner.