Quebec Winter Carnival Creates Unparalleled Warmth in the Dead of Winter
Quebec City, Canada
If you want to see people embrace winter, with an unbelievable amount of
exuberance, plan to visit Quebec City during their annual winter carnival.
The 48th Carnaval de Quebec (Quebec Winter Carnival), takes place this year, from Feb 1-17. Visitors are invited to truly experience winter in all of its
wonderful forms at the world’s biggest winter festival which offers over 300
activities and events.
I have never seen such happy looking people in winter before and I stare at
the revelers as they march up and down the lovely streets of old Quebec
blowing the long red horns that are sold at this time. It doesn’t hurt that
many of the locals carry red hollow plastic canes filled with an alcoholic
drink known as caribou, and take periodic sips to keep their bodies warm and
their spirits high.
Carnaval is for everyone. There were groups of excited teenagers, couples arm
in arm and parents pulling their little ones in sleds, so bundled up against
the cold that they couldn’t move an inch. As one tiny sled passed by, all I
could see was a pair of brown eyes looking up at the sky, the face having
been encompassed by luxuriously warm looking fur parka and bunting bag.
The first Quebec Winter Carnival was held in 1894. It was an elaborate
celebration that provided residents with relief from winter’s harsh reality.
For the next 60 years there were only sporadic festivities. Then, in 1955,
local businessmen decided that an annual carnival would stimulate winter’s
stagnant economy and the custom was revived. Today, Carnaval de Quebec is
the world’s largest winter carnival and the third largest carnival, after the
ones in Rio and New Orleans.
A couple of symbols are constant. There is Bonhomme Carnaval, the carnival’s
ambassador, who returns to Quebec each year and is given the keys to the city
by the mayor. Bonhomme or “happy man” is a cheerful looking snowman. Pictures of him are plastered in almost every store, hotel, and restaurant and also on people’s homes.
Another popular symbol is the Ceinture Flechee, or in English, the arrow
sash. These colourful sashes, which are woven with an arrow pattern, harken
back to the times when the ancestors of the Quebecois used to wear them tied
tightly around the waist, for warmth and back support. Now they are worn
with pride by carnival goers and the proper way to wear one is tied on the
left side of the waist.
We were guests of the Quebec Hilton, which offered a panoramic view of the
400 year old walled city, the plains of Abraham and the St. Lawrence Seaway.
The location was excellent, as we were just across the street from many of
the carnival venues.
It doesn’t matter how you look as long as you are warm, so you will see
people in all manner of snow outfits, dressed in layers for warmth with
effigie bonhomme (small plastic snowmen) attached to their zippers. These
figurines cost five dollars and allow people into most of the events.
Each year carnival organizers try to add something new to the carnival while
keeping the most popular traditions alive.
One of the carnival highlights is the famous Canoe Race on the St. Lawrence
River. Thousands of people gather to watch and cheer on brave teams who
battle their way through ice floes and raging currents as they row across the
river and back. Other popular events are the Grand Viree, which is a dog
sled race through the streets of Old Quebec, the International Snow Sculpture
competition and the Snow Bath – yes, you guessed it – courageous souls strip
down to their swimsuits for a roll in the snow.
Another yearly event is the costume ball and this year’s theme was Saturday
Night Fever. What fun it was to relive my teenage years in full 70’s regalia,
while dancing to my favourite disco hits.
New to the Carnival is a giant babyfoot soccer game (baby fooz ball). The
kids looked thrilled as they were attached to metal poles and worked to
coordinate their movements in order to kick the ball while guided by a clown-like referee. Another welcome addition is a typical English pub, called the
SAQ bistro that has been erected on the Plains of Abraham, in order to give
weary carnival goers a chance to warm up and enjoy a glass of wine or beer
while sampling fine cheeses.
For those who like to rough it a bit, The Amerindian Trail, an interpretation
site devoted to the people of Quebec’s First Nations, is offering visitors
the opportunity to spend the night in a teepee cushioned on a thick bed of
pine needles. Heated stones will be provided for warmth and a package can be
coupled with a night at Loews La Concorde Hotel.
Snow-rafting (flying down an icy hill with others in a big snow raft),
ice-fishing, snow-showing, ice and snow sculpting, sleigh rides, and
ice-sliding are among the most popular activities.
A must see is Bonhomme’s Ice Palace, a medieval fantasy castle, built
entirely of ice and snow that offers an interactive tour. At night it is lit
by blue lights and inside the voice of Bonhomme whispers messages to all who
Bonhomme is a character who could easily rival Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse
in his ability to captivate young and old alike. I fell in love from the
moment he shook my hand and welcomed me to his carnival. He kicks his feet
in the air, bows and has an air of dignity in spite of his plastered on
permanent smile. There is no language barrier when you hear the oohs and ahhs
of children and parents as he wanders around his carnival. Whether it is a
hug or joke or a kind word, all have a sense of wonder as they watch him
easily make his way around the crowd.
Carnival gives people something to look forward to in the heart of the cold
Canadian winter. Locals wish each other Joyeaux Carnival as the mood and look
of the city are completely transformed. Ice sculptures adorn the doorways of
many of the shops, usually reflecting some aspect of the business. For
example, there was an ice sculpture of two embracing cats in front of an art
store that had a clay sculpture of two cats in the window.
The Quebec Winter Carnival enhances an already breathtakingly beautiful
city, as it is filled with merry makers throwing themselves into the joy of
winter. It is a truly magical celebration and I’m going to do my best to hang
onto its warmth for the rest of winter, as I wrap myself in my Ceinture
Flechee and head outdoors.
For more information contact:
Carnaval de Quebec
290, rue Joly
Quebec (Quebec) G1L 1N8
Greater Québec Area Tourism & Convention Bureau
1010, rue Sainte-Catherine Ouest
Montreal, Quebec H3B 1G2