Each year between January and March, Dunkirk Carnival sweeps through the whole city in an incredible mixture of sounds, colours and lights. The origins of the carnival date back to the early 17th century: the sailors went away for many months to fish for cod near Newfoundland and Iceland, and their departure was an opportunity for a meal and a big party. This tradition has survived and today, Dunkirk Carnival has become a large gathering that attracts tens of thousands of people.
For two-and-a-half months, the carnival-goers don their best dress and gather to parade in a happy, family-friendly atmosphere. Every Saturday night there is a grand ball. The bands or orchestras generally entertain people in the streets every Sunday afternoon. The highlight of the Carnival week is still Shrove Tuesday, with its giant, colourful parades. The carnival-goers parade to the sound of an orchestra of sixty musicians dressed as fishermen and led by the drum major, dressed in his imperial soldier costume. As it passes in front of the City Hall, the crowd flocks to the square to receive the herrings: almost 450 kilos of wrapped, smoked herrings are thrown down from the balcony for the occasion!
Since 1999, the "giants", big wicker mannequins made by the association of Friends of the Dunkirk Giant and Dunkirk's Folk Heritage ("Les Amis du Reuze de Dunkerque et du Patrimoine folklorique du Dunkerquois"), have paraded along with the Dunkirk bands, accompanied with great pomp by fifes, drums and members of the public.