Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, which begins Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and sacrifice practiced by many Christians before Easter. Tradition dictates that all of one's gluttony, lust, pride, and the other sins be purged by the beginning of Lent. And so carnival was born, a venue for everyone to engage in those carnal excesses before they are taken away.
Trinidad and Tobago Carnival
The French and English who colonized Trinidad in the 18th century brought the pre-Lenten festival to that Caribbean island. They also brought African slaves to work the sugar cane fields, who were excluded from the festivities. After emancipation in 1838, the former slaves took carnival for their own. Today, thousands of people in Trinidad and Tobago join in costumed street parades, masquerade balls, and concerts featuring calypso and steelpan music. Image by Flickr user sfmission.com.
The Carnival of Venice
The Carnival of Venice is the oldest of these celebrations, dating back to at least 1268. The most distinguishing feature of the Venetian celebration is the extensive use of masks. In previous centuries, some people would wear masks every time they stepped out in public between Christmas and Ash Wednesday! The idea behind the masks is that you cannot tell the social status of the person wearing one, so everyone is equal during carnival. Image by Luigi Scarantino.
Carnaval de Barranquilla
The Carnival of Barranquilla, Colombia takes place for only four days before Lent, but what it lacks in length is made up in size. The Grand Parade on Saturday attracts up to half a million spectators. Celebrations include feasts, street dances, and concerts featuring a variety of musical styles. Image by Flickr user Fotorito.
Fat Tuesday in Portugal is called Entrudo. In centuries past, this festival included street brawls in which participants threw mud or food at each other. In the town of Lazarim, Entrudo is celebrated in traditional style, with a poetry reading to pass judgment on the people, followed by a parade of townsfolk in traditional wooden masks and the burning of effigies. Image by Flickr user Alvaro_I.
Fastelavn is the Danish carnival. It began as a pre-Lenten festival when Denmark was a Catholic country, but when the nation became mostly Protestant, the celebration remained in a somewhat more secular form. Children dress in costumes and collect candy, much like trick-or-treating. There is also a pinata-like game called "beat the cat out of the barrel". In modern times, the barrel is full of candy, but up until a hundred years ago. the barrels would contain real cats. Image by Flickr user tordisvej.
The pre-Lent festival in usually called Mardi Gras in America. The biggest celebrations are concentrated in Louisiana. New Orleans is home to a dozen or so krewes, or social organizations which carry out Mardi Gras activities each year. Each krewe holds its own masquerade balls, stages their own parades, and crowns their own royalty. New Orleans Mardi Gras season is spread out over a couple of weeks.
The Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is thought to be the biggest such celebration in the world. A half-million tourists from foreign countries attend every year in addition to nearly a million Brazilians. The celebration grew out of a the Portuguese Entrudo. The grand parade in Rio is filled with floats and marchers from the many local "samba schools", which aren't really schools at all, but social clubs formed around parade participation, somewhat like the krewes of New Orleans. There are also genuine dance groups and drum crews in the parade. Since carnival is in late summer in Brazil, the parade is famous for pushing the boundaries of near-nudity. But carnival in Rio also means food, concerts, and dancing. Image by Flickr user sfmission.com.
These are just a few of the celebrations taking place this month. Read about more carnival celebrations in other parts of our world.