The hedonistic bacchanalia of Carnival lets loose across the globe every spring, yet most people tend to think only of the plastic beads and floats at New Orleans’ Mardi Gras or samba and elaborately costumed (or barely covered) dancers at Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval. And for good reason: Fat Tuesday in the Big Easy and Rio’s signature blowout are two of the planet’s biggest and best parties. There is, however, more to this age-old party—and ways to celebrate it.
To fully appreciate the variety of Carnival celebrations around the world, it is first necessary to understand the similarities. Carnival ("carnaval" in French, Portuguese and Spanish) is a public celebration that contains elements of parade, circus, street party, masquerade and music festival. It occurs in the lead up to Catholic Lent (usually during February or March) and ends on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the official beginning of Lent. The origin of the name “carnival” is disputed, but the most commonly accepted theory is that the word comes from the Latin expression carne vale, meaning “farewell to meat.” It’s a party, therefore, that celebrates carnal pleasures prior to the 40 days of fasting and self-discipline of Lent.
Although Carnival may, in fact, date back to medieval folkloric festivals, the original recorded Carnival took place in 13th century Venice (and consisted of masquerade balls). The concept then spread to Spain, Portugal and France, from where it jumped onward to Latin America, the Caribbean and beyond. Each step that Carnival took beyond Venice transformed it, as other influences were absorbed and new traditions took root. Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans became two of the greatest sites for the celebration, but many others can lay claim to spectacular Carnivals. Some of the most far-flung cities are now home to the festival’s most vibrant incarnations, incorporating many African and indigenous South American traditions, foods and rhythms.
For example, Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago has its roots as much in West African festivals as it does in European masquerade balls. When slave owners banned the use of African religious practices, dance and drums in colonial Trinidad, the African slaves were only able to openly demonstrate their cultural traditions in those permissive few days leading up to Ash Wednesday. The end result is a concentrated burst of expression that is one of the planet’s most colorful and energetic Carnival celebrations. Even Mick Jagger has made an occasional appearance as a parade drummer.
The sultry port town of Veracruz hosts Mexico’s largest Carnival celebration, where spectators pack into stadium seats to watch more than 50 salsa dance groups. They fuel up on shrimp in a sauce of lime, capers and green peppers, then try their own salsa steps with locals in the zocalo.
In Colombia—one of the world’s largest exporters of flowers—the northern city of Barranquilla hosts a Carnival that’s known for La Batalla de Flores (the Battle of Flowers), a parade where floats try to outdo each other in terms of decorative floral excess. The music is cumbia—not Brazilian samba—and the elaborate costumes draw from both African and indigenous folklore. Barranquilla’s most famous daughter, hip-shaking Shakira, has used local Carnival music, costumes and imagery in her music videos.
French Guiana, the tiny South American overseas department of France, has a strictly organized theme for each of the final four days of Carnival. After the grand parade on Sunday is a cross-dressing marriage burlesque on Monday, when the men wear wedding gowns and women suit up as grooms. Tuesday is called Red Devil Day and everyone dresses in red and black—sometimes using little more than body paint. The celebration continues on to Ash Wednesday—attire is strictly black and white—to observe the burning of the effigy of Vaval, the King of the Carnival.
Despite the variety, Carnival’s attraction remains the same around the world. It’s not just a chance to show off local culture and music, but an opportunity to melt into the crowd and purge the stresses of daily life. Call it catharsis. Call it a cultural encounter. Anyway you slice it, it’s party time.