Taking the Chill out of Winter, Québec-Style

While many Americans might say the end of February is when the "charm" of winter finally wears off, our neighbors north of the border just don't seem to be phased by Mother Nature this time of year.

In fact, in Canada's French-speaking province of Québec, indulging in the bitter cold in the heart of winter is truly "de rigueur." And nowhere is that spirited joie de vivre more apparent than at the Québec City Winter Carnival.

Billed as the world's largest winter festival, the annual "Carnaval de Québec" attracts more then 500,000 visitors from virtually every corner of the Earth. From snow sculpting competitions pitting well-known artists from countries like Sweden, Peru, and Tunisia, to high-speed snow-tubing races down carved alleys of ice, to a stunning castle constructed entirely of ice, the festival has an Olympic feel to it.

On one street corner, a family of Japanese tourists delights in a local delicacy made of maple syrup and snow. On the next, a crew of boisterous and proud Germans cheer on one of their own as he challenges an equally patriotic Canadian to a race in a snow raft. To complete the ambiance of an Olympic village, there's even a walking, talking 7-foot snowman on hand to greet visitors and spread the spirit of worldwide peace and happiness.

"Bonhomme," as he is called, has been the iconic mascot of the Carnaval de Québec since 1954, and he seems to have a local following that lasts well after the snow melts each spring. When asked where Bonhomme (which translates to "good man" or "happy man" in French) goes during the summer, one event staffer replies, "he lives in summer near the North Pole, somewhere close to where Santa Claus lives."

Of course, it's only fitting that the Carnaval's ambassador of winter would spend his summers in the frigid temperatures. But why do the throngs of Canadians who come out for this annual event seem to be immune to the 20-degrees-below-zero wind chill ripping through my bones like a hacksaw?

As Bérénice, a 35-year-old mother of two from the provincial town of Trois-Rivières, answers: "We don't feel the cold. We only feel the magic of winter." The Carnaval's press manager, Sylvain Gagné, adds in French, "We are so used to this weather here in Québec. It would have to be a lot colder to keep the crowds from coming."

True to form, the Carnaval's festival-ending winter parade went off without a hitch last Saturday night, attracting more then 70,000 revelers despite temperatures of just 6 degrees and wind chills well below zero. Perhaps it was a lesson in fortitude for the delicate New Yorkers (myself included) who have complained that it's just too cold to ring in the New Year in Times Square when it dips below 40 degrees.

And while the organizers and visitors at the Carnaval de Québec are to be commended on their ability to withstand the extreme cold, the weather during the annual three-week long event is actually quite manageable and inviting on most days to even the most winter-averse tourist.

The hot drinks sold at kiosks throughout the carnival grounds and the warm Québec spirit do their part to take the chill out of the air, too.

So next year, instead of going south to beat the winter blues, perhaps you may want to consider embracing winter as so many Canadians do — by heading into the cold, and to the place where the magic of winter truly is the main attraction.

For information on the Québec City Winter Carnival, go to http://www.carnaval.qc.ca/en.