Quebec Winter Carnival: Where cold has created a climate of fun since 1894

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Crowds cheer whenever Bonhomme appears and weather never deters anyone. Photo courtesy of Carnaval de Quebec

The Québec Winter Carnival claims title to the world’s largest such event, one that attracts some million visitors willing to brave freezing temperatures. This Canadian pre-Lent festival is ranked as the world’s third largest carnival, just behind the Mardi Gras celebrations in Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans – and those latter two events are held where the temperature is moderate to warm.

But the human spirit loves displaying its stubborn streak. Seems Quebec’s first large festival took place in 1894 when, faced with winter’s hardships, the city’s population decided to warm up the hearts of determined revelers. They followed the rowdy tradition of the habitants of New France back in the 1600s who decided to get together just prior to Lent to eat, drink and be merry. War and economic crisis intervened but down through the years the hardy citizens celebrated sporadically, proving that winter weather need be no deterrent.

By 1954 some astute business people saw the possibilities for tourism, and soon their ideas snowballed – literally as well as figuratively when they introduced the magical figure of Bonhomme Carnaval. He is a living replica of the snowman that enchanted the youth of all Quebecers. He is the ambassador of this celebration for foreigners as well as the people of the largest province in Canada.

This year, his 55th, Bonhomme Carnaval upon his official arrival, receives the keys to the city and presides over all the special activities that will take place daily, Jan. 30 -Feb. 15. As he emerges from his ice palace – a beautiful edifice that awes visitors – Bonhomme Carnaval is seen to be “made of snow.” He is not a mascot but moves and dances, even ice skates, and he speaks in a semi-robotic voice that captivates young and old.

Although he works alone, he has more than 1,500 volunteers to “help” him. In that respect, he can be compared to Santa Claus and – like Snoopy – he never divulges any human traits before the public. Last December he visited a travel writers’ conference in San Francisco and proceeded to other American cities. Bonhomme Carnaval manages to continue across the world both before and after the Quebec festivities.

This 7-foot tall, larger-than-life icon wears a red “tuque” or “toque” better known as a pointed stocking cap; and he sports a “ceinture fléchée” or “arrowhead sash.” This is a colored, plaited sash that resembles the one worn by Quebec inhabitants who pursued an American Indian tradition during previous centuries. It was worn by lumberjacks and peasants to tie their coats at the waist to keep cold air from creeping in, and as well as supporting the wearer’s kidneys during physical work.

For $10 Canadian money, festival attendees purchase a Carnival Effigy Pass. It provides access to most activities at the three main sites during the celebrations and many activities are free. Check the web site www.carnaval.qc.ca/effigy.html to see all the effigies from the past. The current little plastic figurines make excellent souvenirs, as do many other collectibles found on the Internet and at Quebec boutiques.

Some of the highlights visitors can enjoy include the two weekend parades with gorgeous and extravagant costumes worthy of a real masquerade – the carnival’s theme this year. Plastic bubbles protect the scantily clad beauties on some of the floats while audiences bundled in layers of clothes cope with the cold air. But the weather allows spectators to watch creation of exquisite snow sculptures. They gasp while watching courageous snow bathers, they cheer participants in the canoe race, snow rafting, dog sledding, ice fishing and at ice skating events, as well as the fun of horse-drawn sleigh rides and activities at numerous children’s sites. Celebrants party and dance at several venues such at the Ice Palace or where country, disco, hip-hop or swing are featured.

A good deal of information is available on the Internet; www.carnaval.qc.ca/boutique/ is a great site at which to start. Telephone 866-422-7628 for information about the Carnival program, hotel reservations or more specific information, and check the website of the Quebec City Area Tourism and Convention Bureau to learn about the many other attractions found in Quebec City and Quebec Province.

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History Comes Alive in Quebec City

Quebec City is a delightful place for visitors to wander around for a few days. The main areas of interest are in Vieux-Québec (Old Quebec), which is divided between Haute-Ville (Upper Town) within the city walls and Basse-Ville (Lower Town) at the foot of the cliff on which Upper Town stands. Attractions in the Upper Town include many museums devoted to recounting historic events and those set up by religious organizations, such as the Musée des Augustines de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Québec – recounting the history of the nuns who founded the first hospital north of Mexico.

In the Lower Town, the charming Quartier Petit Champlain is a cobblestone street filled with restaurants and boutiques. It is supplemented by history museums and the renowned Musée de la Civilization, which hosts excellent archaeological and anthropological exhibitions. The nearby Vieux-Port (Old Port) has a promenade bordering the St Lawrence River.

The imposing Citadel was added to supplement the fortifications guarding Old Quebec, protecting it from attack across the Plains of Abraham, which stretches as far as the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec. Parallel to the plains and separated from it by the bars and restaurants of Grande Allée is Parliament Hill, where the provincial legislature sits in the ornate Second-Empire Hôtel de Parlement.

Summer hours for attractions typically begin on the Fête St-Jean (24 June) and end on Labor Day weekend in early September. Visitors should note that most attractions are closed on Monday during the winter.

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Quebec City is a delightful place for visitors to wander around for a few days. Photo courtesy of Carnaval de Quebec
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Crowds cheer whenever Bonhomme appears and weather never deters anyone. Photo courtesy of Carnaval de Quebec

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