Carnival enjoys many interpretations around the world, yet there are common threads uniting them. By and large these are parties that feature a great deal of tradition, costumes, parades and food and if they seem a little of the hook some time, well what do expect from people preparing for 40 days of fasting?
Here’s a look at a few Carnival celebrations around the world.
Obviously the best known example of Carnival in the US is Mardi Gras, that season of debauchery that hits New Orleans once a year. Some people consider Mardi Gras just one day, the Tuesday before the start of Lent (known as Fat Tuesday). For others, Mardi Gras describes the whole season leading up to Ash Wednesday, which officially begins on Twelfth Night (January 6) and follows with daily parades, balls and parties starting about two weeks before Fat Tuesday.
The most elaborate parades start about five days before Mardi Gras’ end, with the climax coming on Fat Tuesday, where thousands of revelers pour out onto Bourbon Street and throughout the French Quarter, watch the parade of intricate floats, drink, swap beads and get crazy.
Carnaval, as it’s known in Brazil, is one of the world’s largest parties. It kicks off four days before Ash Wednesday, and is an interesting amalgam of European, African and native South American traditions — with the one binding element being samba, the school of Brazilian dance that sets the rhythm for the entire festival.
In Rio, the birthplace of Brazilian Carnaval, samba schools compete during open stage performances and in various parades. Residents also compete, joining blocos — groups of people from the same neighborhood who dress in the same costumes, which can often be over-the-top. Each year the number of blocos increases; more than 100 bloc parades take place throughout the festival.
Trinidad has the largest Carnival celebration in the Caribbean, centered in its capital, Port of Spain. Technically, the celebration lasts more than a month, leading up to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, but the festival hits its climax on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before Lent, known as Dimanche Gras, J’ouvert and Mas.
Dimanche Gras features the island’s best calypso players competing to be named “calypso monarch” for the year. J’ouvert takes place at dawn on Monday, where partygoers don old clothes and cover themselves in mud (hence the day’s name: “dirty Monday”). Like elsewhere, the big party takes place on Tuesday, with a day of costumes, dancing and eating.
Carnival in the Czech Republic is known as Masopust, and it too technically stretches more than a month, from Epiphany until Ash Wednesday (it’s interesting to note that Masopust means, essentially, “farewell to meat”).
Masopust is probably bigger in the Moravia region of the Czech Republic, but there are parties to attend throughout Bohemia as well, especially on the outskirts of Prague in towns like Roztoky. Most Czech villages and towns wait for the weekend before the start of Lent to throw their big celebrations, which include not only the requisite parades and costumes but tons of local beer and a huge pig roast on most days.
Russia celebrates Carnival, but with an Orthodox Christian twist. The festival is known as Maslenitsa (Russian: ????????????), celebrated roughly seven weeks before Orthodox Easter (the difference between Western Christian and Orthodox Christian Lent is that they begin on different days; in Russia, Lent begins on a Monday).
Slavic lore has Maslenitsa as some kind of sun festival. In some respects, Russians celebrate this in anticipation of the coming spring. At least, that was how it was once described to me in Prague by a Russian friend who had me over to his house to celebrate Maslenitsa. The festival is, above all else, a celebration of food. His wife cooked rich salads of fish and meat and, of course, the bliny, or pancake, the staple of the Maslenitsa table. Unfortunately so much vodka was consumed that night that further details are a bit hazy…