Some people spend most of winter trying to avoid the ice, snow and most of the things that make it, well, winter. Not so the attendees of the Québec Winter Carnival (or the Carnaval de Québec, in French), who revel in the frigid surroundings to celebrate the joie de vivre of the Carnival season.
Let everyone else flock to Rio de Janeiro for Carnival and New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and opt for a very different way to celebrate than those warmer-weather destinations do. When it comes down to it, Carnival is all about enjoyment, and you can do it in a coat and scarf just as easily as you can in a skimpy costume.
Quebec Winter Carnival History
Among other cultural highlights from their homeland, the habitants of the New Francecolony brought with them the tradition of getting all the partying out of their system—eating, drinking and being merry—before Lent. In 1894, Québec City held its first large Carnival, but a consistent annual event was interrupted by two wars and an economic crisis before the first official edition of the Québec Winter Carnival took place in 1955.
Since then, many popular events that take place during Carnival seem to be ageless, even if they weren’t part of the festival’s beginnings. Snow sculptures, winter sports, and traditional Québec activities like dogsled and canoe races are beloved highlights of the largest winter carnival in the world.
If you want to get the best of the Québec Winter Carnival, it’s best to learn more about the traditions and symbols that are a huge part of the winter event. First off, find a long, red plastic trumpet (akin to those noisy vuvuzelas that often inspire extreme emotions), employ some more red in your costume, and get an arrowhead sash—a belt worn by Bonhomme Carnaval (the mascot of Carnival season).
Speaking of Bonhomme, he’s the snowman you see in everything that mentions the festival—complete with his half-moon smile, red cap, and arrowhead sash. He’s the personification of the joie de vivre of the winter celebration, and is extremely popular with kids. When he shows up on the first day of Carnival, he’s given the key to the city and is in control until Lent.
Required Viewing of Snow and Ice Sculptures
There are so many pieces to the Québec Winter Carnival that you’re bound to miss something, no matter how hard you try to catch it all. But if you want a short list of things to absolutely not miss, start with the Ice Palace. Built with bricks of compacted snow and lit with colored light displays that make the palace look like an iced dessert, the palace is the center of many Carnival activities. Surrounded by the many snow and ice sculptures carved from blocks of snow by artists from around the world, the palace is the centerpiece of a temporary annual winter wonderland.
A competition hailing from the beginning of Carnival celebrations in Québec, the Canoe Race features several teams paddling on the St. Lawrence River between Québec City and Lévis. Dress warm to watch both the preliminaries and the final, drink some hot Caribou, and you’ll be glad you’re watching and not participating. By all means, stick around in the evening to watch the Night Parades, which take place on the second and third weekend of the Québec Winter Carnival. For some attendees, they’re the best moments of the festival.
Pick Your Weekend
Unless you‘re a professional festival-goer, you won’t be able to attend the Québec Winter Carnival for the entire run, so learn which events happen when, and pick your weekend. Events take place over three weekends before Carnival is over. Highlights of the first weekend are Opening Night and the Carnival Snowcross Grand Prix. Second weekend festivities include the Canoe Race, the Sleigh Race, the First Night Parade and the International Snow Sculpture Event. The third weekend brings the Snow Bath (an idea for you torture-seekers), the Second Night Parade, as well as the second weekend of the International Snow Sculpture Event.
Throughout it all, the revelry, entertainment and opportunities to sample local cuisine make the entire Carnival season rich. Make sure you don’t focus only on the big events, but take a spin around the amusement park, try all the food and witness the complete enjoyment of this special season.