Growing up in Brazil, I always had the impression that Carnaval was uniquely ours. Instead, I found out it’s celebrated in different ways all over the world…
Imagine a street taken by a large crowd. Seen at a distance — or from above by a drone — it’s an endless sea of people, all dressed in colorful costumes, with big smiles on their faces, dancing to the incessant and contagious beat of the drums. An image that seems unreal in these last two years of isolation that we’ve had to get used to living comes to life as Carnaval, the biggest cultural celebration in the country where I was lucky to be born and raised.
“My flesh and my heart are Carnaval”, say the lyrics of this song by Novos Baianos. Every February, my Brazilian soul dances in the rhythm of samba amid an explosion of sounds and colors. For most Brazilians, Carnaval is a time to celebrate life and forget — at least for a week — all the problems. I confess that I write this article with a certain ache in my heart knowing that this year the festivities have been canceled/postponed in Brazil and the party as we know it will be saved for a safer time, when the pandemic finally becomes just a memory in our minds.
Although Carnaval was incorporated into the Christian Church calendar, its origins come from parties held by ancient pagan peoples, such as the Greeks, Romans and Mesopotamians — where wine, food and carnal pleasures were anything but lacking. The etymology of the word Carnaval comes from the medieval Latin carnelevarium, which means to take away or remove the meat (definition from Oxford Languages). This term fits within the Catholic practice that marks the last chance to eat red meat before Lent, the period of fasting that precedes Easter.
I’m extremely proud to say that the world’s largest Carnaval celebrations take place in the city of Rio de Janeiro. In 2020, about 10 million people (equivalent to the entire population of Portugal 😱) had a fun week watching and participating in the official Samba School Parades and street blocks in the “Marvelous City” — more than 2 million of these were tourists. Although I’ve never paraded in a samba school — and this is definitely at the top of my bucket list! — what I enjoy the most during Carnaval is following the street blocks, singing and dancing as early as the break of dawn and as late as my legs allow me to.
Growing up in Brazil, I always had the impression that the party was exclusively ours, but despite being the biggest one, it’s also celebrated in other parts of the world.
Carnevale di Venezia — Italy
In the romantic city of canals, the costumes are inspired by the 18th century and are characterized by the famous noble — and somewhat creepy — masks. Historical facts have that the people started wearing the Venetian masks to hide their social status as a way to interact with fellows across different social backgrounds. Carnaval in Venice follows the same calendar adopted in Brazil, starting 15 days before Shrove Tuesday, ending on Ash Wednesday (or, for some party harders, that terrible hangover day).
Europe’s oldest and largest Carnaval takes place in Cologne, Germany as a week-long street festival, also called “the crazy days”. Two days before Ash Wednesday, tens of thousands of people gather in the streets wearing masks and cheerful costumes to follow the Rose Monday (Rosenmontag) parade. I learned the typical greeting during the festival is Kölle Alaaf!, meaning “Cologne above all!”.
A tradition started five centuries ago by the Greek-orthodox community in the neighborhood of Tatavla, today’s Kurtuluş, in Istanbul — Turkey is known as Baklahorani — translated as “I eat beans” in reference to dietary restrictions before Lent. The festival was banned in the early 40s after a law that prohibited mask-wearing, and was finally revived in 2010, being celebrated since then with music, dance, costumes and seafood-based meals.
Solo Batik Carnaval
The most recent celebration of all is held in Solo City (Surakarta City), Indonesia, since 2008. Although the word Carnaval was added to it, it has no relation to its Christian origins. The festival happens in June with a different theme and was created to showcase Javanese culture, highlighting the ancient art of Batik, a method of cloth dying for which the city is famous.
Have you ever participated in a Carnaval celebration or would you like to participate someday? Leave a comment below and share your story with our community!