The family Gayant Giants Douai Douaisis Northern France (c)ADLangletThe family Gayant Giants Douai Douaisis Northern France (c)ADLanglet
©The family Gayant Giants Douai Douaisis Northern France (c)ADLanglet
The giants of Douai – recognised by UNESCO

Who are these wicker giants? listed by UNESCO

The tallest giants in the whole region, they come out just once a year on the first Sunday after July 5. Meeting these ancient wicker characters is an experience not to be missed. Pictures do not do justice to these historic titans, a visit to the annual Festival of Giants is the only way to be part of nearly 500 years of history!

The Great Gayant Family

Can you hear the drums beating as they approach? Can you feel the excitement of those around you rising? Immense figures, swathed in scarlet cloaks and adorned with glittering jewels, arrive in the distance with careful steps, with their gentle protective gazes on the crowd that spreads as they pass, manoeuvred so carefully by the men in white hidden inside.

It’s the famous Gayant family! And what a family… There are 5 giants… and a squadron of nearly sixty people marshalling their passage!

The Gayant Family and its 40,000 children

A year must pass. A whole year of waiting before the chance to meet the Gayant Family will come around again, these protective giants of Douai. Their outing, every first Sunday after July 5, is not only a tradition… it’s a cult! The citizens of Douai have their own calendar, ‘After Gayant, it’s winter,’ the saying goes.

It is a fact that Mr Gayant, from the top of his 8m50 of wicker, has been watching over the town since 1530 after having, according to the legend, defended and saved it from an invasion… by the French! He fell in love with Marie Cagenon in 1531. And the love at first sight was mutual. This giantess, who became Madame Gayant, has given him three children over the centuries: Jacquot, Fillon and Binbin, also known as ‘Ch’Tiot Tourni’ because of his cute squint.

The house of the giants

The Gayant Family has not had to defend Douai from enemy assaults for a very long time and for most of the year takes some well-deserved rest, away from prying eyes, at home. Yes, yes… their own house! But, these five giants have kept up the tradition of coming to dance every year with the inhabitants of the town, those commonly called the ‘vint’ d’osier’ (wicker bellies) and who consider themselves the children of these great figures.

Giants and Men

Yes, you read that right, dancing! And not just any dance, the ancient folk Rigodon. Choreographed to perfection, synchronised steps, our five giants give it their all and come to life to the sound of the Douai Orchestra, on Sunday morning in the courtyard of Douai’s Hôtel de Ville. Is it a miracle? Is it witchcraft? Well, no. The members of the Gayant Family are, as tradition dictates, giants carried by the strength of the shoulders and legs of the men well hidden under their petticoats. And strength is what it takes! The large figures, Mr and Mrs Gayant, weigh 370 kg and 250 kg respectively… each carried at shoulder height by six men. Their children are smaller, from 45-80kg, and need only one man to come alive.

Make no mistake, carrying the Gayant Family is not a chore, but an honour! All these people in the background are in fact local stars. And being part of the ‘Corporation des porteurs’ (Porters’ Corporation) is not only a privilege but also a lifetime’s work.

The Porters' Corporation – wicker in the blood

This large group of about 50 men (and one woman, a seamstress!) is highly organised and hierarchical.  It is in fact six or seven families from the guild of portefaixes (Guild of Load Carriers) who have, since the 19th century, passed down the job from generation to generation. From father to son, possibly brother-in-law or cousin.

Father to son bearer

One enters as a quêteur (beggar). Then, with luck, when a place becomes available, is elevated to porter status. After some time, it will then perhaps be possible to reach the position of Chef de Lunette, literally the eyes of the other porters under the skirts of Mr and Mrs Gayant… But beware, always under the authority of the Chef de protocole, the ultimate Grail! Top hat, frock coat, and a cane to beat the tempo – and of course a natural authority – the two Chefs de protocole, one each for Mr and Mrs Gayant; the Gayant children march to the rhythm of their sole custodian! The chefs are the ones who control all the porters with an iron fist in a velvet glove, who set the rhythm, the stops and starts. They are real stars who are ambushed for photos whenever they appear!

So, during the next Gayant Festival, when you see our beautiful giants appearing in the distance, you will think of the men in white…