“Attention all passengers, we are now boarding flight TP0365 to Brussels at gate 21. Please have your boarding passes and an identification document ready”, announced the hostess through the speaker. Lucas and Anna looked at each other, unable to hide their excitement. They were finally going to Belgium to participate in the college exchange with students from Ath, a town in the region of Wallonia.
They were going to spend a week attending classes and visiting different places in the region. Each of them had a pen pal assigned, and they were going to sleep at their house. It was going to be a cultural immersion to discover Belgium and practise French.
“I have been looking forward to this moment since we received the first email from our pen pal. I have never been to Belgium and I’m so excited to finally go”, said Lucas. “Me too. I haven’t been to Belgium either. I want to explore it and learn about its culture and traditions. I also want to finally practise my French. I always try to speak it with all the tourists that come to Barcelona, but it’s different when you are in the native country, n’est pas?” said Ana with a funny smile. Both friends laughed.
The next day they met in the school and asked each other about their first night in what would be their home for a week. “How was your first night? I was very nervous to meet Julie, but she and her family were very nice. We went to have dinner at what they call a ‘friterie’, where you can eat French fries. It was delicious!” said Anna. “You’re lucky! I want to try those fries. It’s funny that they are called French fries when they were invented in Belgium”, said Lucas. “Yes, it’s hilarious”, replied Anna.
“I’m very excited about the activity we will do after lunch. I’m curious about it as teachers have kept it as a surprise. Where will we go?” said Lucas. “I don’t know, but I’m sure it’s going to be a fantastic experience!”, said Anna enthusiastically.
In the afternoon, they joined their classmates to take the bus. When they were all ready to go, their teacher said, “Well, we are going to play a game. We will give you a set of hints so you can guess where we are going. The three words are ‘big’, ‘music’ and ‘Goliath’”.
All the youngsters looked at each other disconcerted. What had Goliath to do with music or something big? “Anyone have an idea of what it could be?”, asked the teacher. None of the students replied. Anna and Lucas looked puzzledly at each other and shrugged simultaneously. “Okay then, you will discover it shortly”, added the teacher, winking at them.
Ten minutes later, the bus stopped in front of an old historical building. There was a panel that said ‘Maison des Géants’. All the group got off the bus and waited in front of the door. A woman arrived some minutes later and warmly welcomed them. “Hello, everyone! I’m Pauline and I’m going to be your guide today. Let’s go inside to start this trip through the history of Ath’s folklore!”, said the guide.
The group followed Pauline, who guided them inside the building until they arrived at a big room full of wooden giants with massive heads. They all looked different. Some represented kings and queens, while others represented folkloric figures. There were two of them in the middle, a woman with a dress and a crown and a man with a club. “Well, welcome to the House of Giants. Let me introduce you to Mister and Mrs Goliath, the two most important giants of Ath”, said Pauline enthusiastically.
Lucas raised his hand and asked, “These giants look very similar to the ones we have in Barcelona. Do you also have a celebration with these figures in Ath?”. Pauline replied, “Yes, as you have guessed, this is a museum that explains the history and traditions of what is called ‘la Ducasse de Ath’, and giants are an important part of this celebration. It has been included in UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, so it has an unmeasurable cultural value! Can any of you explain first what the tradition is in Barcelona? Then we will see if there are similarities between both festivities”, said Pauline.
Anna quickly replied, “Yes! The giants in Barcelona are very popular. Their origins can be found in one of the religious processions during Easter – the Corpus Christi – in the 15th century. The first giant was Goliath, the biblical figure”. Lucas added, “Then more giants appeared, representing kings, queens and other folkloric figures. Each street or area of the city has their own giants, but the most famous are the giants of the city, King Jaume I and Violante of Hungary”. A classmate added, “The processions take place during the festivities of ‘La Mercè’, the third week of September. There is a lot of music, and it’s one of the most important events of the festivity. I have gone since I was a kid, and it’s my favourite part!”.
“That is very interesting, I knew that processional giants were very popular in Spain, but I didn’t know much about the traditions related to them”, said Pauline. She continued, “We also have a procession, it lasts a whole day, and it’s the most important event of the festivity, which takes place at the end of August and the beginning of September. Apart from Mister and Mrs Goliath, there are many other characters. Another event that is key in the celebration is the battle between David and Goliath. We are proud to be the only European town still representing this iconic battle. It takes place in the city’s main square, which is always packed”.
All the students looked astonished because they realised there were many similarities between both celebrations. The teacher said, “As you can see, our tradition has many similarities to Ath’s. I’m sure you weren’t expecting that”. “Not at all, but I can’t wait to learn more about it!” said Anna. Pauline smiled and said, “Okay, let’s start the visit!”. All the students followed her, amazed by all the giants and objects exhibited.
After the two-hour visit, they left the museum. All students were impressed by the exhibition and all the facts they had learned. “I wasn’t expecting to visit a museum, but it has been great! I have loved learning all about the Ducasse de Ath”, said Lucas. “Me too! It has been very interesting. I can’t wait to call my mum and tell her what we have discovered today. I’m sure she doesn’t know that giants are also very popular in Belgium”. Both friends returned to the bus and continued speaking about all the facts they had discovered that day. They were sure that in the future, they would go back to Ath to celebrate the giants.
EXTRA INFORMATION ON THE TOPIC:
The first registers about giants in Europe were found in Portugal, dating from the 13th century. They were part of the Corpus Christi celebration that takes place during Easter. Then the tradition spread all over Europe and it became very popular in countries such as Spain, France, Italy, Belgium or the Netherlands. The giants’ real origins are unclear as there are also registers in America and Asian countries. Therefore, it isn’t clear who influenced who.
Initially, their aim was to induce fear, but throughout the centuries, their meaning has evolved. They have represented religious and folkloric figures as well as kings and queens. In Belgium, giants were part of religious celebrations. They represented characters from the Bible or saints and served to educate and edify the illiterate masses.
It is believed that Spaniards introduced these figures in Flanders – now part of the Netherlands, Belgium and the north of France – during their domination in the 16th century. That would explain the similarities among the different traditions and processions that take place in those countries.