While Rio and New Orleans are world-renowned as the top places of choice for Carnival, here’s a lesser-known, but equally fun choice, Quebec City. Although, you’ll have to pack an entire suitcase of warm-weather clothing, don’t forget your swimsuit! (see left). Now ranked as the Number One Winter Carnival in the World, and the 3rd largest Carnival celebration, it’s worth mentioning that Quebec City almost doubles in size over a two-week period to invite revellers from the rest of Canada, and a few hardy souls from the US as well.
How did this famous chilly celebration get its start? In the early 1890s, the North American economy was very slow, including Quebec. Québec City was particularly hard hit because of the permanent closing of its shipyards and problems with the shoe manufacturing industry. In October 1893, the owner of the Quebec Daily Telegraph, Frank Carrel, launched the idea of a new carnival in Québec City to help the city get back on its feet economically.
The first major winter Carnival took place the following year. The carnival tradition was continued sporadically until 1954, when the department of economic development re-launched the festivities as a major tourist attraction. That same year, the Carnival mascot, the snowman or Bonhomme was born. The first official edition of the Québec Winter Carnival took place in 1955 and has been taking place every year since.
I first attended Quebec Winter Carnival in 1998, but this time I have to say, I saw a dramatic improvement in the overall organization of the festival, as well as the effects of its growth and success. The festivities were much larger and well-attended. The grounds of the Carnival were expanded to include a giant Ferris Wheel, a horse & buggy race, and The Bonhomme’s own Ice Palace.
The parade resembled that of its famous Quebecois troupe, Le Cirque du Soleil, including elaborate costumes, creative designs and incredible makeup.
Even so, Winter Carnival is not so well-known here in the US. Only 15% of Americans know about Winter Carnival, a bit more in New England, with 19% notoriety. Maybe it’s the chilly weather, or the fear of speaking French, but whatever the reason, right now, Winter Carnival is mostly a Quebec and Canadian draw: 52% of the visitors come from Quebec City, 37% from the rest of Quebec, 7% from the rest of Canada and the remaining 4% from outside Canada.
Caribou, the Only Authorized Alcoholic Beverage at Carnival
You may have seen this plastic cane before, especially if living in New England, tucked away in an attic or coat closet. It’s the caribou cane, to hold a special drink authorized for Quebec Winter Carnival revellers. The snowman’s head unscrews to reveal a hollow cane that is filled with a special drink, caribou.
Originally made from caribou blood and whiskey to keep hunters and loggers warm in the freezing Quebec winters, now it is a much more tasty drink, made of red wine or port, whiskey and maple syrup. It’s the only authorized drink at Carnival, so be sure to pick up a bottle at a local tourist shop. All alcohol is bought at the SAQ, or Societe des Alcools du Quebec, so this is where to buy your caribou. Be careful, as drinking too much caribou often causes excessive silliness or abrupt fits of uncontrollable laughter. It’s also a great way to keep warm during the sub-zero festivities.
Any way you look at it, if you don’t mind the single-digit temperatures, Winter Carnival is a great way not just to beat the Winter doldrums, but to celebrate them!