Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 17, 2022
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Cold spell

Quebec's winter carnival bewitches revellers of all ages

Winter is not my favourite season. In fact, it’s fourth on my list. So when an invitation came to visit Quebec City’s Winter Carnival, suffice it to say, the words “sign me up” were not the ones I was thinking. Yet, oddly, the invitation intrigued me.

Though I was born and raised in Montreal, a three-hour drive southwest of Quebec City, I had never been to the city whose old town, with its historic ramparts, 100-year-old buildings and narrow, cobblestone streets, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.

Besides that, I was curious to know, sun worshiper that I am, why 1,000,000 people were willing to brave the snow, slush and sleet, not to mention sub-zero temperatures to “celebrate” the season that makes me so miserable. With a carry-on full of my warmest winter woollies, I decided to find out.

Getting Wild In Winter

Quebec is the biggest province in the second-largest country in the world and Quebec City has some of the coldest winters in the east. Its coldest month is January when the average high is -7°C and low is -17°C. That said, it’s no surprise that its Winter Carnival, traditionally held at the end of January until mid February every year, is the largest of its kind in the world. It’s ranked right up there with Rio’s Carnaval and New Orleans’ Mardi Gras as one of the biggest parties in the world. In past years, it’s brought in as much as $34 million.

Historically a chance to eat, drink and be merry before Lent, Quebec City’s first official Winter Carnival was in 1894. After being postponed because of World War One and Two, as well as the Great Depression, the celebration started up again in 1955 (the festival’s first annual edition) with Bonhomme, the always-smiling snowman that goes nowhere without his red hat and belt, as its ambassador. Since then, the carnival, which will be celebrating its 53rd edition January 26 until February 11, 2007, has been heating up the hearts and spirits of families during a season that’s anything but warm.

So what is the winter carnival and why oh why are so many people piling on the fleece tops, long johns, scarves, mitts, toques and snowsuits to be a part of it? After spending a few days in Old Quebec and the winter wonderland that it becomes for 17 days every year, I started to understand.

Child’s Play

First and foremost, the carnival is about kids. In fact, while many carnival goers are there revelling with friends, most of the participants are families. I saw many kids as young as five being pushed in strollers (not the best idea) and pulled in sleds (a better choice for manoeuvring through the snow), but many more aged seven and up. All the kids, as well as some moms and dads, were bundled up in snowsuits. Admission is certainly family friendly. For only $10 per person, visitors get access to most of the activities on the three main sites throughout the 17 days.

It’s best to take in the carnival on the weekends, which is when most activities take place. The second and third weekends are the most popular because of the night parades of clowns, floats and marching bands. They draw more than 200,000 spectators every year. The first parade is on February 3 in Charlesbourg, the second is on February 10 in the Upper Town. Both start at 7PM.

Other carnival classics include the dogsled race in which 30 to 35 competitors participate every year. The six-kilometre-long race starts in front of the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac and continues along Saint-Louis street, Grande-Allée and the Plains of Abraham before returning to the château. Because sledders compete one at a time, it takes at least an hour before the top dog is named. This year, the race is scheduled for January 27. It starts at 1PM, but hit the streets earlier for an upfront spot along the route.

Another need-for-speed event is the soapbox derby. Before competing, racers are divided into groups (kids aged 10 to 13, teens aged 14 to 17 and adults) and all the soapboxes are inspected for safety. After all, it’s all fun and games until someone winds up headfirst in a snowbank. Awards are given to first-, second- and third-place racers as well as the masterminds behind the most original soapbox — should it go to the car with the Mr. Potato Head hood ornament or the refrigerator Rolls-Royce? The derby is on February 3 on Côte de la Fabrique and starts at 10AM.

The carnival is perhaps most inspiring during its international snow sculpture show, which turns the Plains of Abraham into a giant outdoor museum. About 50 teams from 30 countries apply to compete every year, but no more than 20 are chosen to take part. Each team is given a block of snow that’s about five-and-a-half-metres wide, three-metres high and three-and-a-half metres deep from which they must chisel, shape, water and ice their snowy structures. Beginning January 30, each team has five days to complete their sculptures. It’s best to take in the show the last weekend of carnival when the winners will be named. Can’t make it out that weekend? No worries. The equally impressive Canadian show, which includes 13 teams from across the country is January 26 through 28.

To help get your muscles working, there’s skating, sledding, tubing, snow rafting and skiing. There’s also an elaborate ice palace made up of at least 5000 ice blocks (Bonhomme has to have his own home sweet home too) and a kids’ village where the youngins’ can race roadsters that are really more like box cars.

Celebrate Like A Local

Besides racing, rolling and romping through the snow, there are three carnival customs that set this one-of-a-kind winterfest apart from all the rest. One is the colourful, fringed belt tied around the waists of many carnival goers and, of course, Bonhomme. Inspired by Aboriginal culture, the ceinture fléchée or arrowhead sash was used throughout the 19th century to fasten jackets at the waist to stop the cold from getting in and was a symbol of Québécois patriotes during their 1838 rebellion. Today, the sash (available in both adult and kid sizes) is sold and seen throughout the event. Note: the proper way to wear one is tied on your left side.

Another tradition involves long, red, plastic trumpets. When blown into, they sound like elephants or, in my opinion, like someone who’s gassy after having gobbled down too much poutine (pronounced poo-teen, a local favourite made up of fries topped with cheese curds and hot gravy). Your kids will definitely want one of these noisemakers.
Then there’s caribou, a drink just for mom and dad. Once believed to consist of caribou blood and cheap whisky, the blood-red brew generally includes brandy, port, sherry and vodka. You can down it cold or warm; either way it still tasted like cough syrup to me. Savvy carnival goers carry the drink in hollow, plastic, walking canes with a removable stop and sip it for warmth as they walk.

Despite the elements, but most likely because of them, Quebec City’s Winter Carnival is chock-full of ways to keep you on the go. Its activities, competitions, shows and traditions are a lot of fun for the little ones, but, surprisingly, great for “bigger ones” like you and me too. Sure it’s chilly out, but the joie de vivre is so contagious — if I got caught singing and swing dancing to folksongs at the opening ceremonies, I guarantee you will be too — that bracing the weather is (almost) worth it. After all, if you can’t beat the cold (and the blowing snow… and the wind chill… and the freezing rain…), you might as well embrace it. And just think, by the time the carnival is over, the coldest month of the year will be too.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


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