The origin of the reuzenommegang, or giant procession, lies somewhere in the late 15th century. The huge figures emerged in the spring and were carried around in celebrations for months all across Europe. The first giants were inspired by characters from the Bible, but later their religious significance decreased. That development was not well received by the Catholic church, which branded the parades as pagan. The French reign at the end of the 18th and early 19th century was also hostile to the giants and destroyed many of them.
In most of Europe, the giant tradition has not survived, but it has in Flanders, as well as in the rest of Belgium, northern France and Spain. It was in the 1950s that the tradition was revived, but never before have there been as many giant processions as there are today. Each month, a new giant is born somewhere in Flanders.
And they are indeed “born”, because a giant’s life looks like ours: They are born and baptised, they marry and have children. And all these events should be celebrated. Several giants are based on historical or famous local figures. The oldest in particular carry many traditions with them and are often managed by reuzengildes, or giant guilds. Some giants may not leave their city, while others tour around the whole of Flanders.
One of the many Flemish giant guilds is the Reuzengroep Debbauts from Evergem, near Ghent. Ronny Van Den Bossche has been a “carrier” for nine years. He talks about the giants of his guild as if they were his family. “The oldest two giants, Dokus and Isabella, are originally from the Muide, a neighbourhood near the port of Ghent. In 1936, the founder of our guild, August Debbaut, bought them from a group over there. The two giants married in 1949 and, a year later, two children were born, James and Jacobina. These also have a grandchild, David. Then there are the servants Slisse and Cesarine and the flower sellers Sabbas and Pierken. That makes eight giants and a giant child.”
The Reuzengroep Debbauts take part in perhaps four parades each year. Sometimes they even go abroad, to northern France, for example. “Going out with our giants is quite a happening,” smiles Van Den Bossche. “You can imagine, to transport eight giants, you need a truck. It is also really a folk affair. We in the Reuzengroep Debbauts are all working people who like to take a trip together and appreciate a pint of beer. Reuzenommegangen are a folk tradition par excellence.”
Isn’t it heavy, a giant on your shoulders? The largest specimens weigh about 50 kilos. “As long as there is no wind, there’s no problem,” laughs Van Den Bossche. “The skeleton of the giant, which is made of reed, is balanced so the weight is right on the shoulders.” The biggest giants need two carriers to switch now and then and to assist each other along the march.
“You see very little under the skirts of the giant,” Van Den Bossche continues. “And we do not simply walk; occasionally we make our giants dance in rounds and in pairs opposite each other, a kind of folk dance from the past. Sometimes we surprise the audience by bending towards them a little. The reactions of the people, that’s really fun. Children and old people can be really astonished sometimes when they see our giants. That’s why I do this in the first place.”
The birth of a giant demands a lot of work. Usually, the local associations build their own. Traditionally, the skeleton is made out of reed or willow branches, but now aluminium and Styrofoam are also used. Another option is to contact Lieve Lieckens, one of Flanders’ few giantbuilders.
“It is certainly not easy” to build a giant, says Lieckens. “Each figure takes a few weeks of work.” She is a basket weaver by profession, and most techniques used in building giants come from the weaving craft. “In the beginning, it took a lot of research because there was nobody left to learn the techniques from. But now I have built maybe 40 giants. And every giant is different. Reuzengildes come up with their own plans or sometimes they ask to copy old giants.”
How many giants there are exactly in Flanders, nobody knows. But their number is estimated to be as high as 1,500. Volkskunde Vlaanderen, an association that works around contemporary traditions, started a project to map Flemish giants. Their aim is for reuzengildes to put their giants on a website and create an interactive database.
“We want to work from the bottom up,” says Laure Messiaen, who co-coordinates the project, called Rond de Rokken van de Reus (Around the Skirts of the Giant). “Processions with giants are an important heritage, but also a living tradition. We hope to preserve that tradition, but not as a relic of the past. Our project should make clear that the giant really lives in Flanders. In addition to an inventory database, the project is also a way to put the various reuzengildes into contact with each other and make them aware that they are part of a broader tradition.”
Giants are, by definition, large. However, there can be only one winner when it comes to being the largest, and that honour is reserved for Jan Turpijn II of Nieuwpoort. Turpijn is a stunning 10.4 metres tall and weighs about 750 kilograms. This makes him not only the biggest giant in Flanders but also in Europe. Twenty-four carriers are needed for him to be put in motion. But not all giants are necessarily large. Since the 18th century, Borgerhout has had a family of little “giants”, barely larger than a human.
Where the oldest giant lives is less clear. The tradition began in the late 15th century, and both Ros Beiaard of Dendermonde and Gouyasse of Ath in Wallonia date from that period. The oldest giant family, however, definitely comes from Mechelen. The Giant of Mechelen dates from 1492, his wife Giantess from 1549, Grandfather from 1600 and the children, Janneke, Mieke and Claesje, from 1618. The city that lays claim to having the most giants is Turnhout: Its guild has 31 giants.
There are several giant parades every month in Flanders throughout the summer. Here’s a selection of upcoming events
Deinze (Canteclaer, Roede and others)
Ypres (Goliath, Cieper and Minneke Poes)
Tielrode (Den Toeter and others)
Blankenberge (Korno, Collette and others)
Meulebeke (Catelina, Jules-Oscar and others)
Anderlecht (Erasmus, Onulphe and others)
Koksijde (Kos, Stiene and others)