Five giants dancing in the street at Ducasse d’Ath in Ath, Belgium. (Courtesy photo provided by l’Office de tourisme d’Ath)

Bits of the Benelux: Giants dance in streets during Ducasse d’Ath

Story by Libby Weiler, USAG Benelux Public Affairs

[Editor’s Note: The following story is the first in the series Bits of the Benelux. This series takes a deep dive into the stories, cultures and traditions found throughout Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany.]

CHIEVRES AIR BASE, Belgium – The month of August usually signifies vacation with loved ones, but for three employees on Chièvres Air Base, the end of August is a time for tradition, celebration and up to 300 pounds of weight on their shoulders.

From Friday Aug. 26 to Sunday Aug. 28, 2022, the city of Ath, Belgium, celebrates Ducasse d’Ath, or the Parade of Giants.

The fair emerged in the 15th century with the construction of Église Saint-Julien d'Ath, or the church of St. Julian. According to the office of tourism in Ath (“l’Office de tourisme d’Ath”), the parade in the city occurs on the Sunday closest to the Festival of St. Julian of Brioude.

To those unfamiliar with the festival, the “ducasse” or “fair” of Ath has grown from a small religious procession to a world-famous event, being recognized by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage and Humanity in 2005.

Because the procession was originally meant to teach Christian principles to a largely illiterate population during the Middle Ages, many religious symbols can still be found in the festival today.

“Before, when we (Belgium) were under the French and before the French Revolution, we (the giants) were a part of the religious fair,” said Bernard Jaye, safety specialist for the Logistics Readiness Center - Benelux.

The biblical story of David and Goliath is a centerpiece of the festival, along with a mixture of folklore and fairytales.

The first giant, a horse named “Bayard,” made its debut in the parade 1462. This magical horse was famous in medieval poetry for his supernatural ability to adjust his size according to his riders.

In 1481, Goliath became a part of the procession. This giant, meant to replicate the biblical giant slain by David, later became a staple of the Ducasse d’Ath along with his wife who joined him in 1715.

“In Ath we don’t say Madame Goliath,” said Pascal Andrieux, supply technician for Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation at Chièvres Air Base. "We say ‘Madame.’ Him (Goliath), we call him ‘Monsieur.’”

A porter carrying Tirant, a giant at Ducasse d’Ath, dances during the festival in Ath, Belgium. (Courtesy photo provided by l’Office de tourisme d’Ath)

Friday, Aug. 26

The celebration in town starts at 3 p.m. Friday when the giant Tirant appears.

Tirant, an original giant to Ducasse d’Ath, has a unique history in the festival. In 1850, the giant was taken off display and replaced by a new giant by the name of Ambiorix. With both giants representing archers, there was no need for a duplicate. Ambiorix, named after an opponent of Julius Caesar, was well received in the community because of his connection to Belgium’s past.

According to Laurent “Gus” Elius, supply technician for the Property Book Office at Logistic Readiness Center - Benelux and team lead of the giant Tirant, “back in 1991, a couple of teachers from a school from Ath - my dad was a part of it - and a couple of other people, some historians, they decided to recreate it (Tirant). After some discussion, we got authorization (for Tirant) to open the fair, the Ducasse d’Ath.”

Since then, Tirant has been allowed to make an appearance on Friday, but is no longer included in the procession on Sunday.

On Friday evening, the traditional burning of Goliath’s pants takes place.

“It’s a tradition here in Belgium,” said Andrieux. “Before you get married the guy will burn his pants.”

“In Belgium it’s very important to burn the pants,” said Elius. “The boy is gone, now you are becoming a man, and you are getting married.”

The pants of the husband to be, in this case Goliath, are burned by his best friends, the town of Ath. They stuff his pants with hay and parade them around town until they reach their destination and celebrate this time-honored tradition.

Miss Victory (Mademoiselle Victoire), a giant at Ducasse d’Ath, during the festival in Ath, Belgium. (Courtesy photo provided by l’Office de tourisme d’Ath)

Saturday, Aug. 27

On Saturday, the Ducasse d’Ath officially begins at noon with the ringing of the “Julienne” bell at Church of St. Julian.

“You’ve got thousands of people at the bottom of the church, at the tower,” said Elius. “Everybody is waiting for that bell. Those people (the bell ringers), they climb to that tower to pull the bell, so you can hear it from the bottom. You say, come on, come on, then they start...”

For residents of Ath, this is a very profound moment in the festival. Although celebrations in town start Friday, officially the Ducasse does not start until you hear the bells ringing.

“Saturday at noon, when the bell rings, it’s just a special feeling,” said Elius.

Later that day, Goliath and his bride meet at the church to get married.

There’s a dance both giants take part in before their nuptials called the “Grand Gouyasse.”

“It’s a special dance that they dance together, like a mirror dance, and then they kiss,” said Elius. “That’s the only kiss before they get married.”

After Mr. and Mrs. Goliath get married, the newlyweds return to city hall and David confronts the giant Goliath.

David, played by an eight-year-old from the town of Ath, has a special connection to the giants.

“It’s a child in the family of the people that carry Goliath,” said Andrieux. “He’s always a son of a carrier. Somebody related to the family.”

The fight starts with David provoking Goliath in the town square with a traditional verbal dialogue called the “Bonimée.”

“They have a speech between Goliath and David in the old language (Patois),” said Elius. “They are kind of teasing each other. You’ve got thousands of people and when they start speaking nobody is saying anything.”

After a bit of back and forth, David throws a small stone into the giant’s costume. The hole being no more than a few inches wide, it’s no easy task for an eight-year-old.

“You have thousands and thousands of people,” said Andrieux. “You know some kids, when they are in front (of Goliath) and you’ve got everybody yelling then they start to cry.”

If David’s stone passes into the hole, he has slain the giant.

“The tale says if he makes it that gives you luck for the whole town for the year,” said Elius. “If not, bad luck for a year.”

“Last time, that was before COVID, in 2019, he made it,” Elius added.

For the people of Ath, this festival is so deeply rooted in the town and their traditions that these small moments are extremely powerful.

“I cry with David when he throws the ball,” said Andrieux. “If he makes it, that’s the moment. You have some people who cry when Goliath and Madame Goliath do the first dance. You got some people, it is the church and the clock.”

If the shepherd, David, wins the battle, then Goliath and Madame Goliath begin a traditional dance.

“That dance (Grand Gouyasse) is only made six times during the weekend, but if David made it, they do it also in front of the town hall,” said Elius.

After the battle, citizens of Ath celebrate by eating pie.

“They have a special pie that they sell at the bakery,” said Andrieux. “People from Ath, they can only eat the pie from the Saturday after the fight until September 8. After you cannot find that pie anywhere in Ath.”

Called la Tarte à Mastelles, or Tart Gouyasse (Goliath in the local dialect), it can only be found during the festival.

A view inside a giant at Ducasse d’Ath in Ath, Belgium. (Courtesy photo provided by l’Office de tourisme d’Ath)

Sunday, Aug. 28

Sunday morning, the parade of giants begins. Throughout town, floats and local groups accompany seven giants – the eagle with two heads, Samson, Ambiorix, Miss Victory, Bayard and Goliath and his wife.

In European folklore, giants have a unique connection to the past. Celebrated throughout Europe, giants are believed to have contributed to megalithic sites such as Stonehenge.

In the town of Ath, Belgium, being asked to carry a giant is a colossal honor.

“I started when I was 18, when he (Elius' father) allowed me to come,” said Elius.

“It’s not easy to carry a giant,” said Andrieux. “You have to have family or friends that bring you to carry them.”

The custom that used to be passed down from family to family, father to son, has changed over the years.

“Sometimes people don’t have a son,” said Elius. “They try to make it the closest family link they have.”

For Andrieux, it was a friend who invited him to carry Tirant.

“I waited a long time,” said Andrieux. “I started late, because normally they start when they are 22, 23 years old. I was almost 35 when I started. It was a favor that a friend did to me, to bring me inside.”

“It’s an honor,” Andrieux added. “You have giants all over this area, but when you carry those ones, it’s like the top. It’s like playing football and you play for the best team.”

Having been retired for ten years now, Jaye became a carrier in his late 20s. He carried Miss Victory, the Giant of the city of Ath, and only other female giant in the parade aside from Madame Goliath.

“You have to have the town in your blood, you have to feel it, really feel it,” said Jaye. “That goes from your blood to your arms to your hands to your head to your legs, everywhere.”

Of course, it’s a matter of équilibre (balance), he added.

“If you don’t have that, you won’t be a carrier,” Jaye said. “That’s the first thing you need to have.”

For carriers of the giants of Ath, it is custom to practice for a few years outside of the parade before you are called into the big leagues on Sunday.

“Those people (new carriers) maybe after 10, 12, 15 years they can carry the giant on a Sunday. Also, maybe never,” said Andrieux.

Depending on the giant, one carrier may carry anywhere from 243 to 287 pounds (110 to 130 kilograms) on their shoulders at one time. They also have a casquette (headpiece) that bears some of the weight. Because of the difficulty of carrying a giant, porters take shifts every few minutes. Most giants have a team of about 10 people helping to carry the weight that rotate every few minutes.

“When we do a dance, a dance is about two minutes, depending on the song,” said Elius. “As we are 10 people, we rotate it so we have time to rest.”

Every carrier on his team knows a special dance. It’s important to know and work with the band in order to schedule and decide who is going to carry and when.

Each giant also has their own dance in the festival.

“Of course, it’s very important to know the music,” said Jaye, “but it’s very important to respect the kind of dance we have in each giant. In each giant, we have dedicated music. That’s very important that we pass that through to younger carriers.”

“I remember the last time, the number of dances we had on a Sunday, it was around 176 dances,” Jaye continued. “It’s incredible. Those dances, the time period for a dance is between three and four minutes. If you multiply that by the number of dances (and divide by ten), that’s a lot.”

For all three men, the weight lifts away when they begin dancing inside a giant.

“When we dance, you can hear people clapping and everything, and that gives you more power to dance,” said Elius. “It’s a special feeling.”

“You go and are so excited to be inside,” said Jaye. “You go and dance and by the movement, in a way, the weight is not the same.”

When the giants are busy dancing in the street, the porters not carrying the giant are walking beside the giant along with sons of the carriers. Each child carries a big mug for tips.

“When we dance, people that are watching us they are throwing coins, money,” said Elius. “The job of the kids is to take the money and put it in their pots. That goes to our group, to the giant account.”

Collecting money in pots started after World War II by U.S. Soldiers.

“When the U.S. troops where down here after the end of the war, a couple of them stayed here,” said Elius. “They went to watch the parade and they, U.S. Soldiers, started to tip.”

After that first year, the population started doing it and a tradition was born.

Once the morning procession is complete, the parade is done in reverse in the afternoon starting at 3 p.m.

Laurent “Gus” Elius with his son Zacharie standing in front of Tirant at Ducasse d’Ath in Ath, Belgium, August 2016. (Photo courtesy of Laurent “Gus” Elius)

After the Parade of Giants

Most people don’t realize it, but the Ducasse d’Ath lasts until Sept. 8. After the public festival on the weekend, the giants make local appearances in neighborhoods and hospitals the next few days. Many carriers even meet and gather with other carriers.

“Monday is something else for people on the inside,” said Elius. “On Monday only the giants are going out to different blocks of the town to meet the population and then they come back downtown and keep dancing. On Tuesday that is more for the carriers - all the carriers from each giant, we go eat together. Then Wednesday it’s over - we rest on that day.”

As a final ending to Ducasse d’Ath, it’s tradition that everyone in town eats mussels.

“On the eighth is the closure of the Ducasse,” said Elius. “Every bar, restaurant, families, that is our tradition – we eat mussels.”

“They say a long time ago there was a guy who came with mussels, he was selling mussels on the Grand-Place,” said Andrieux. “With all the money he went and paid drinks for everybody. At the end of the Ducasse is the tradition everybody eats mussels.”

Originating in medieval times, Ducasse d’Ath has evolved throughout the centuries into what it is today – a festival full of tradition, history and fun.

This series, Bits of the Benelux, will continue to explore the many cultural traditions in and around the Benelux. Further stories like this on the local traditions, festivals, and events are scheduled to be published monthly, as they occur.

For the last three years, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival has been canceled or scaled back considerably. This will be the first year in which events will take place as normal.

Visit the City of Ath website to learn more about the Ducasse d’Ath.