Bonhomme is much more than just a snowman. To the Québecois, Bonhomme is as real as you, or me…or the Tooth Fairy!
Jolly Bonhomme Carnaval is The King of Winter. To some children (and most adults) he is more magical than Santa Claus. At 7 feet tall, and allegedly made of snow, this jolly figure is also the official ambassador of Le Carnaval de Québec, known simply as Carnaval.
Every year during Carnaval, Bonhomme is given the key to Québec City, and during that time, strange things happen.
Drinking in the streets, normally prohibited by law, is given a blind eye, as long as you are sipping from une canne – a long red plastic hollow cane, topped with a mini Bonhomme head.
The drink of Carnaval is Caribou- a sweet mixture of wine, brandy and maple syrup. Just like Bonhomme himself, Caribou delivers a mighty good kick (a joyful leg lift is one of Bonhomme’s distinctive trademarks).
Throughout the festival area, loud foghorn-like trumpets sound through the crowds. Blow yours, and you will soon hear the echo of a fellow winter reveller. When my eight-year old daughter and I visited Québec for Carnaval, we bought one of these long, red plastic horns, tooted it liberally all weekend, and brought it back as a souvenir for her 3-year old brother. It was a real hit.
During Carnaval, life-sized statues of Bonhomme appear across the city: at the airport, in hotel lobbies, and at various sites around the Carnaval, ready for the obligatory Bonhomme selfie. As a first-timer, these inanimate replicas were a slight disappointment. I had expected to see the jolly snowman himself appear around every street corner, mingling with the crowds, but, like Santa, the “real” Bonnehomme remains elusive. Of course, there is only one, so how can he be everywhere at once?
There are five official sites at Carnaval, all within walking distance of each other. In order to gain access, you need a small charm that can attach to your coat zipper, and looks a little bit like a Christmas ornament. This effigy costs only $15.00, and features an image of – you guessed it! – Bonhomme!
As well as the official sites, there are dozens of Carnaval-associated activities around the city: skating rinks, tobogganing hills, storytelling, ice sculpting, ice-bathing and even ice-fishing! The parade at the end of Carnaval is what most locals claim as their favourite event.
Le Monde de Bonhomme is the best place for families. This magical world has a petting zoo and a mini-obstacle course with a number of easy challenges, perfect for toddlers and young kids. For older kids and parents, there is a hilariously enjoyable giant human foosball table. Also for the older ones, the nearby Uniprix ice slide is a thrill, but with an average 60-minute waiting time, we gave this activity a miss.
Instead, we walked through the enchanting Petit Champlain district to the historic Dufferin Ice Slide, where, for $3.00 each, groups of 2 or more people take a traditional wooden toboggan down the ice at speeds of up to 70 kilometres per hour.
The Dufferin Ice Slide is an activity that extends beyond the Carnaval period. It’s a must for any winter visitor to Québec City, but especially for thrill-seekers.
There are plenty of hotel deals for visitors to Carnaval. We stayed at the Hilton on Boulevard René-Lévesque, which has a very popular outdoor heated pool on the third floor rooftop. In the lobby of the Hilton, we spoke with concierge, Richard Ampleman, who wore an impressive collection of Carnaval pins around his neck – one for every single year of Carnaval -that’s 63 pins! He proudly claimed to have been at every single Carnaval since 1955.
I made the mistake of asking Ampleman if he had ever been inside the Bonhomme Costume. Once he fully understood my question (my French is a little rusty), he turned away from me in mock-offence, and muttered “Madame, you would never know”. His colleague, standing close-by, noticed his reaction and asked me what I had said. When I explained, he also shook his head, clucking disapprovingly. One just does not talk about Bonhomme this way.
The biggest treat of our holiday was meeting the real Bonhomme.
Just like any other king, he was flanked by two handlers who were wearing walkie-talkies. True to style, he was full of energy, kicks and kisses. And, as I had imagined, he was soft and fluffy, and lovely to hug. In fact, I couldn’t get enough of him, and nor could anyone else. He was indeed mystical and magic, but also so sweet – and so cuddly!
The big surprise? Bonhomme talks! And even better for us, he spoke English (with a nice French accent). He didn’t say too much, just told our group how nice it was of us to visit, and wished us “Bon Carnaval”. He also explained, when we asked, that the reason he wears his belt, the arrowhead sash, on his left-hand side was because that’s where his heart is!
Then before we knew it, he was off again…just like magic.
Québec City offers some truly wonderful winter activities that you simply can’t do anywhere else, but the biggest attraction for us was a big, fluffy snowman called Bonhomme Carnaval.
Visiting the Carnaval de Québec?
Helen Earley is a Halifax-based writer. She was a guest of Québec City Tourism and Québec Original