Image: Trinidad and Tobago
Blane Harrington III / Alamy
Considered by some connoisseurs to be the “world's greatest” Carnival, Trinidad's widely imitated five-day celebration showcases the living legacies of the island nation's entwined cultures and musical traditions, including calypso and steelpan.
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updated 2/18/2009 11:01:01 AM ET 2009-02-18T16:01:01

It’s been almost a thousand years since Christians first paraded through the streets of medieval Rome in celebration of the coming of Lent.

And although the trappings of the event have changed in innumerable ways since then, revelers from Venice to Venezuela continue to parade every February in their footsteps during the global pre-Lent street party known as Carnival.

With origins in Christian, pagan and local traditions, Carnival is the wildest and most inclusive holiday straddling the Old and New Worlds. Consider it the crowning party achievement of Western Civilization.

The reigning King of Carnivals, the one from which the rest take their name in the popular imagination, is still Rio de Janeiro. For its sheer size, manic tempo and sexual energy, there is no match for Brazil’s bewildering Bacchanalian blowout, which culminates each year in a citywide samba line.

But Brazil isn’t the only country with a distinct and cherished Carnival tradition. Indeed, more than a dozen other nations would bristle at the idea that their own Carnivals are mere pale imitations.

“Everywhere that Carnivals have taken root and grown they have become unique events unto themselves,” says Philip Scher, an anthropologist at George Washington University who studies Carnival traditions. “Whatever soil they germinate from tends to influence their final colors.”

Among those Carnivals in Latin America and the Caribbean with strong national identities is Trinidad’s, which floods the streets of Port of Spain every year with the native sounds of calypso and steelpan, and feature unique characters from national history not found in neighboring countries. Whatever the differences between them, all authentic Carnivals share a common energy and philosophy.

“Any good Carnival is very colorful with people from all walks of life celebrating a mix of cultures, music and food,” says Clarence Moe, CEO of Trinidad’s National Carnival Commission. “During the parade you shouldn’t simply watch the masquerade bands go by, but join in. Carnival is all about participating in every aspect.”

Twists on the Latin Carnival tradition can be found around the world every February. In Sydney, Carnival doubles as a gay rights event. In Goa and Kerala, India, the celebration has been given a Hindu accent. And in Italy’s Alpine resort town of Livigno, revelers celebrate Carnival on skis.

This year, North America’s most famous Carnival, New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, continues to inch back to its former glory after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The party known for King Cake, beads and brass bands this year falls on February 24. Authorities are expecting more visitors than last year, but still not pre-Katrina numbers.

Image: Italy
Maurizio Borgese / Hemis / Corbis
Italy throws the biggest Carnival on the continent. For 10 days between Feb. 14 and 24, parties replete with floats and costumes take over the pizzas and plazas, from motorcycle parades in Cento to downhill skiing celebrations in the Alpine resort town of Livigno.
If you can’t get down to the Caribbean or Latin America for Carnival this winter, consider attending one of the summer Carnivals in the islands. Among the countries that throw Carnival parties in summer are Cuba and St. Lucia. Meanwhile, Jamaica and St. Thomas celebrate in April.

But no matter the date or the place, the old Italian saying still holds: “A Carnevale Ogni Scherzo Vale.” At Carnival, anything goes.

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