From Religious Observance to Modern Festivities: The History of Carnival
Carnival consists of a set of popular festivities that take place in several Catholic countries or regions in the time right before Lent. The main features of carnival are dancing, music, and elaborate costumes, along with the eating of decadent foods. Carnival has different names and different traditions throughout the world, but Brazil’s Carnival celebrations are the most famous.
Carnival is Brazil’s most important holiday; the celebration lasts for an entire week. The festival generates millions of dollars for the costume industry and tourism.
The name Carnival, also called Carnaval in Portuguese, possibly originated from Carnem Levare and Carnelevarium, medieval Latin words of the 11th and 12th centuries. During Lent, people were forbidden by the Catholic church from eating meat for the next forty days. Most Catholics today still don’t eat meat or poultry during Lent, especially on Fridays. These Latin expressions signified the date to start abstaining from eating meat.
Most scholars agree that the origin of Carnival began in Europe. Some people believe that the origins of Carnival stretch back to ancient Rome and its famous Saturnálias feasts. Others believe that the origins began in ancient Greece, where the celebrations were made in honor of the grape harvest and winemaking.
Carnivals became quite famous and popular in Catholic European countries such as Italy, German, France, Spain, and Portugal. Other areas celebrating Carnival include several Caribbean countries (Jamaica, Barbados, and Cuba), Central and South America countries (Belize and Panama), Canada, and some cities in the United States (New Orleans, Brooklyn, and Miami). In the United States, Carnival is known as Mardi Gras.
Each country and region has its specific roots, cultures, and tastes, so it’s very natural that each Carnival has unique customs and features that have evolved over the years.
The Brazilian Carnival began in 1641 in Rio de Janeiro to honor King D. João IV, restorer of the Portugal Kingdom. The Portuguese brought their own Carnival traditions, and Carnival at first was celebrated in the streets with costumes and jokes as the main features. People played drums and Zabumbas, and used costumes that included donkeys, princes, skulls, and other figures. Sometimes the costumes poked fun at public figures, and also toward social and economic issues in that city or region.
Currently, the Carnivals of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo focus around a huge parade in the Sambódromo, which was created especially for this parade. Participants belong to the samba schools and dance in a multitude of samba styles as they pass by. These schools compete in presenting themed special choreographies and allegorical cars. The tourists and residents come to watch and they enjoy listening and dancing to the contagious rhythm of the bacteria.
It takes many weeks of work, patience, and creativity to make these elaborate costumes, even though they are shorter and skimpier than in past years. Thousands of people work on sewing and gluing, as well as applying feathers, foil papers, and glitter to create extraordinary outfits to use during the parade.
Another Carnival is the Carnival of Pernambuco or Bahia. At this festival, it is a tradition for groups called blocos to participate. Everyone sings and dances the frevo, the axê, or the aracatu in the streets, without elaborate costumes.
It doesn’t matter where you go to spend Carnival. No matter what country or region you visit during this special time, you are sure to have a fun and joyful time. You will have plenty of pictures and stories that you can bring back from your visit!