The history behind the world-renowned religious celebration that takes the meaning of “festival” to a whole new level
Carnival—the glamorous and indulgent cultural parade of festivities celebrated around the world by Catholics and their counterparts alike.
It is springtime’s most notorious celebration marking the Lenten season: the season leading up to the traditional meat-free Fridays and period of reflection and humility observed by those of the Catholic faith. The word ‘carnival’ itself originates from the latin term carne levare, meaning “to remove meat.” Traditionally held on Sundays, Carnival marks the start of semana santa, also known as the holy week leading up to Easter. It can fall anytime between early February and early March.
This year February 7th, 2018 marks the start of the Carnival events.
Originally, Carnival was a festival held for the purposes of indulging in food, drink and promiscuous behaviors as it was the last time to do so before the 40 days of Lent. For Christians, Lent marks a time for solemn reflection of the days prior to Jesus’ death when he went without food or water leading up to his crucifixion.
The festival itself is composed of cultural activities, musical acts, acrobatics and street performances, dancing, day-to-night street parties and the best part: indulging in copious amounts of food and drink. Extravagantly clothed participants fill the streets, the parades, restaurants and parties wearing costumes adorned with any mixture of sequins, beads, feather boas, body paint, plumed headdresses, masks and glitter.
Traditionally, costume attire was worn by all social classes to disguise themselves among the masses. It allowed them to forget their social statuses for a time and enjoy celebrating alongside the nobles.
Although the true origins of Carnival are widely speculative, it was documented that Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) set the festivities in motion when he declared that fasting during the Lenten season would begin on what is know commonly known as Ash Wednesday. Therefore, the day before, commonly known as “Fat Tuesday,” became a day of gorging oneself on rich foods. Carnival is regarded as originating in the Catholic regions of Italy, later spreading to France, Spain and other Catholic European areas. The Spanish, French and Portuguese then spread it to the Americas and other parts of the world during their voyages of exploration and colonization.
Lavish and exuberant are words one can use to describe Carnival celebrations. From Rio de Janeiro—home of the world’s most famous Carnival—to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras—the biggest Carnival in the United States—these festivals are magical celebrations that envelop whole cities and unite their citizens and visitors alike. Compared to Mardi Gras, European and South American Carnival celebrations are widely considered more grandiose, colorful and brimming with embellishments. Trinidad and Tobago are two small islands known for having the best Carnival in the Caribbean.
Over time, each country has adopted its own traditions and nuances stemming from the culture of the people living there; African samba music and parading through villages in masks and costume mark celebrations in Caribbean festivals, and a ceremonial burial of the Sardine marks the Carnivals of Spain. Other common features include mock food fights, social satire and the mockery of authorities.
Now, the Canary Islands are replete with their own diverse Carnival celebrations. Each town and city holds a unique celebration with its own traditions and festivities ranging from drag queen galas to talcum powder fights. Tenerife’s Santa Cruz Carnival is known for its glamorous and unrestrained celebrations—earning itself the recognition as comparable to the level of extravagance in Rio.
Don’t miss out on the yearly festival people from all over the world venture out to celebrate! If anything, it’s a socially acceptable time to get a little crazy and wear that glittery costume you’ve been hiding in your closet.