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Every year when temperatures plunge, the world’s biggest and best-known winter carnival brings a warm and festive feel to Québec City. Hundreds of thousands of people come from near and far to take part in a host of mainly outdoor activities, all under the watchful eye of Bonhomme Carnaval, the star of the show whose real identity remains a secret.
In 1893 a group of businessmen led by former Québec premier Joly de Lotbinière started a huge carnival to brighten up dark winter days and attract tourists. The first Québec Winter Carnival ran from January 29 to February 3, 1894.
An ice palace stood proudly before the parliament building. Streets were decorated with ice sculptures and arches adorned with pine boughs. The festival included a masquerade on ice, a canoe race across the frozen St. Lawrence, and parade floats. A similar carnival took place in 1896. Then smaller celebrations were held in the decades that followed, before the economic crisis of the 1930s and the second world war put an end to things.
The idea resurfaced in the early 1950s. In January 1955 the mayor of Québec City solemnly handed over the keys of the city to Bonhomme Carnaval, who was making his first public appearance. Duchesses and a queen were also involved in the revived first edition. An ice palace was again at the heart of the celebrations, and the ice canoe race between Québec City and Lévis remained a highlight. A large parade also drew crowds.
If the winter festival has lasted for so long, it’s because locals have made it their own. Québec City residents join in the activities in droves, inviting family and friends to visit during the carnival and supporting the event financially by buying passes and candles. The event’s deep roots in Québec traditions is another of its strengths. Ice canoes, snowshoes, dogsledding, snowmen, snow forts, slides, skating, and other winter sports have long been part of Québec culture. They are all a key part of the carnival and help it feel authentic to visitors for whom ice-cold winters are more of a novelty.
Another plus for the Québec Winter Carnival has been its ability to change with society. While relying on recurring elements that lend the event its distinctive character and have become traditions themselves—Bonhomme (the star of the show), parades, snow sculptures, canoe races—there have also been several changes over the years. Dogsledding races, for example, have replaced cars careering around icy circuits, and the first women’s ice canoe team took part in the race in 1966. The emphasis on family has also shifted many times at the public’s request. And the duchesses, who disappeared for 17 years, made their return in 2013 in a different role. Now they are in charge of reintroducing activities to all city boroughs, spreading the carnival spirit to one and all, the way things used to be.
The carnival nonetheless remains largely based in historical Québec, opposite the parliament buildings and on the Plains of Abraham, with the city providing a magical backdrop. Winter is still front and centre as the event encourages locals and visitors to indulge in fun and games in a city that gets more than its fair share of snow and cold. And Bonhomme’s ever-present smile is a friendly reminder to all that there are many reasons to enjoy life all year round… although the true origins of this mysterious but warm-hearted snowman remain a mystery.
Trophy awarded to the Voltigeurs de Québec team at the 1896 shooting championships
The item was saved from the fire at the armoury on April 4, 2008. Traces of soot are still visible.
Voltigeurs de Québec collection
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