Carnival celebrations are renowned the world over, and are viewed as times to have fun without much care. For the tourists lucky enough to catch the party, it is a time to get to know the local traditions, and enjoy the photogenic entertainment that comes with it. Coming from the Latin word “carne vale” which means “doing away with meat,” some say that carnivals are the last days to eat meat before the fasting that comes with Lent. However, most might not appreciate the idea that the debauchery that comes with carnivals may be tied to religion. The early church, in an effort to gain more followers, incorporated pagan practices with the goal of having the non-followers feast and get sinning out of the way, before joining the church’s 40 day repenting period.
Regardless of the origins, many find carnivals a fresh change of pace, thus leading to their popularity and increasing numbers. There are literally hundreds of carnivals across the world, but the following made the list of the most spectacular ones.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil~ Carnival
One of the top carnivals in the world, Carnival is definitely the biggest on the planet. The modern carnival has its roots back in the 17th century, and has grown to become an event with huge numbers of people and activities. The carnival is held in mid-February every year (between 13th and 17th), and begins with a crowning of the carnival king (the Fat King), who gets presented with a giant key made of silver and gold by the city’s mayor. From then on, it is party time all over, with festivities taking place in the street, bars, town squares, parks, and virtually any other appropriate venue. The carnival spectacle, the Samba Parade, provides locals and tourists alike with a parade by the city’s best samba troupes. More than 50,000 people attend the event on a yearly basis, and global coverage by international media is common.
Celebrated to commemorate the victory of good over evil (Lord Vishnu’s triumph over the demon Holika), the Holi festival marks Winter’s end and the beginning of an abundant Spring season. The festival is celebrated in most parts of the country, though some places have bigger celebrations than others. Every year, the Holi festival is celebrated the day after the full moon (usually in March).
In line with the festival’s traditions, locals spend the day smearing colored powder on each other, pouring colored water, partying, and dancing under falling water. Bhang (cannabis sativa) is ground into a paste and makes up a big part of the celebrations. To celebrate the triumph over evil spirits, big bonfires are lit.
If you are going to participate in the Holi Festival, expect a lot of water (colored) all over your clothes and body. Some of the colors are hard to wash out, so put on old clothes to mitigate that. Apply oil to your skin before engaging in the fun, to avoid your skin absorbing the colors.
Venice, Italy ~ Carnevale de Venezia
This carnival’s popularity only pales slightly to the aforementioned two, and consists of dances, parades, concerts, and balls. A distinct feature of this carnival is the costumes worn by participants, complete with masks. The carnival has been observed since the beginning of the 15th century and historians say its roots can be traced as far back as the end of the 13th century. The symbolism of the masks is that earlier Venetian civilizations wanted to be treated equally, regardless of social standing or income, so wore masks to be anonymous. In modern times, the carnival see numbers close to 40,000, who are all entertained by street artists, singers and parade troupes.
Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain ~ Carnival de Santa Cruz de Tenerife
The Santa Cruz de Tenerife carnival is closely tied to the Brazil carnival in many ways. Spain’s carnival starts a week prior to the Brazil one, with much fanfare, pomp, and color. The opening parade is known to pull in huge crowds, climaxing with a huge nighttime celebration. The carnival is divided into two: a Street Carnival and an Official Carnival). The official carnival has more than 5,000 participants, with elaborate dances and performances to keep the city’s guests humming. The Street Carnival, on the other hand, is more open to the public and only requires them to wear costumes. Music is a big part of this carnival, and tunes range from Caribbean rhythms to modern trance and electronic music.
New Orleans, USA ~ Mardi Gras
No carnival list is complete without mention of one of the most popular carnivals in the United States: Mardi Gras. The festival began back in the 19th century and was started as a way to show respect and support to various cultures in the city. This is one of few carnivals that feature a color scheme: purple, green, and gold. It starts early January with a masked ball. The celebrations and festivities carry on for a good two weeks, up to a day before Ash Wednesday. Celebrators wear strings of colored beads around their necks and enjoy all kinds of revelry in the streets. Parade floats are a big part of Mardi gras, and the city of New Orleans typically sees more than four million visitors every year. In the years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, Mardi Gras has seen more focus than before from local and international media, and the onus is on event organizers to come up with new attractions every year.
Goa, India ~ Intruz
Intruz is exclusive to Goa, and can be traced back to early Portuguese settlers who lived in Goa for over half a century. Held in February, the festival comes alive for three days and nights, and features lots of music performances, and a lot of color as well. Parades are the order of the day, and floats of all types and shapes come out during the night. Grand balls are also held, and the carnival ends with the famous red-and-black dance in Panajim.
There are many more carnivals and festivals out there, but these are some of the most famous in the world. They aren’t the be-all end-all of carnivals, and we encourage you to go out and experience the many ways world cultures celebrate!