Brazil is renowned for many things, from the Amazon Basin to the samba. One of the most famous and exciting aspects of Brazilian culture is the celebration of Carnival. Carnival, the period just before the Christian observance of Lent, is a joyous celebration that contrasts starkly with the solemnity and sacrifice of the period that follows it. Closely related to Mardi Gras—in fact, Mardi Gras is a component of the Carnival period—the Brazilian celebration is often compared to the similar atmosphere of New Orleans. A quick note on language: Carnaval is the Portuguese spelling, while Carnival is the Spanish and English spelling. To maintain consistency and ease of access for English and Spanish readers, I will use the latter spelling throughout this post.
Depending on which calendar is used, the Christian year is divided into six or seven seasons, the most famous of which are Christmas and Easter. A third season is that of Lent, which is a time of repentance and fasting before the Easter holiday.1 Since Easter is a vital holiday for Christians to observe, and one which commemorates Jesus sacrificing himself to save mankind then rising again, those who observe Lent pray a great deal and partake in quiet reflection. Another key component of the Lenten season is abstinence or fasting—sweet and fatty foods, alcohol, meats, and various personal activities might be given up during the season in order to reflect the sacrifices made by Jesus while he fasted in the desert.2 The season of Lent begins in late February or early March every year, ending at the Holy Week before Easter.
Carnival immediately precedes Lent and is the last opportunity to use up and consume the items that will soon be prohibited. As a result, the foods and drinks that are sacrificed during Lent are used up so that they don’t spoil—for instance, someone who promises not to eat meat during the fasting season might eat more meat than usual during the days preceding Lent.3 On top of the feasting that occurs during this time, Carnival is a natural period to relieve stress and engage in social activities, as the season of Lent is more focused on inward thought and self-reflection. Indeed, even the name of the celebration signifies self-restraint: it comes from Latin and means, roughly, “farewell to flesh.”4 The name has two meanings—the first is a signal that meat will be given up, as was traditionally the case during Lent, while the second is a recognition that people ought not to think of their “flesh” or bodily needs during Lent, but instead emphasize their spiritual growth over that time. This time of transition, when people are preparing to forego daily pleasures for the restrictions of Lent, lends itself to a “last hurrah”-style commemoration. Parades, musical events, masks, and costumes usually make up part of the Carnival celebration, with different aspects depending on local customs and traditions.
Among the most famous recognitions of Carnival are Brazil’s. Nearly every city in Brazil has its own celebration of the holiday, typically united by the presence of parades, costumes, and delicious food. The grandest of these is Rio de Janeiro’s festival, first held in 1723, which is considered the largest not just in Brazil but in the entire world.5 One of the unique components of Rio’s Carnival is the appearance of samba schools, community groups that perform the Afro-Brazilian samba. Some 200 or more samba schools build floats and practice routines for the annual parade that draws two million people per day.6 Outside of the street parade, Carnival in Rio consists of dancing, music, and parties over a large area of the city. Vendors sell commemorative items and delicious foods like feijoada (slow-cooked pork with rice and beans) and carurú (a gumbo-like dish full of nuts and shrimp).7 São Paulo, Brasilia, and Recife, among other Brazilian cities, also have distinctive Carnival celebrations with foods and customs unique to their region.
Virtually all of Latin America celebrates Carnival in one fashion or another. Some of the oldest Carnival traditions can be found in Ecuador, where traditional indigenous festivals merged with Christian holidays to form massive Carnival celebrations.8 Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Colombia all have Carnival traditions dating back several hundred years.9 In Uruguay, the Carnival festivities last for more than a month, while in Trinidad and Tobago huge celebrations take place for a week or more before Mardi Gras, each day with a specific theme.10 And New Orleans has a shared French and Spanish heritage, making it the perfect North American city for Carnival celebrations. The city’s famed Mardi Gras parties and historic French Quarter make it a popular setting for those who want to have fun while celebrating the Carnival season.11
Carnival is a celebratory period that differs a great deal from the season following it, and people all over the world have their own ways to recognize the holiday. While the festivals in Rio and the parties in New Orleans might catch the headlines, people throughout Latin America have recognized Carnival for centuries. It’s an important part of the cultural fiber of the region, even for non-Christians, and the joyous celebrations that accompany Carnival are unlike any other. Please check out the below photos to see the spectacle of the festival.
- https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/193181.pdf, 19-21.
- https://www.barcelo.com/pinandtravel/es/carnaval-campeche-2017-el-carnaval-con-mas-historia-de-mexico/; https://www.maskmuseum.org/carnival-ponce-blog/; https://www.colombia.co/en/colombia-travel/tourism-by-regions/guide-barranquilla-carnival/
- https://web.archive.org/web/20120117020043/http://www.uruguaynow.com/montevideo-carnival.php; http://www.gotrinidadandtobago.com/trinidad-and-tobago/carnival-in-trinidad.html