This is it! The light at the end of the tunnel, the most wonderful time of the year. Carnival season. Can somebody say “Amen”?
By necessity, the list below is incomplete. Carnival festivities are widespread and diverse, embraced in countries, cities, and villages on both sides of the Atlantic. Any effort to fully catalog the folly would surely be a fool’s errand. We offer instead a tiny glimpse into a few activities that illustrate why the weeks before Ash Wednesday are so eagerly anticipated, in so many places around the world
New Orleans –
The feast of Epiphany, which commemorates the visit of The Magi to the baby Jesus, is traditionally considered the twelfth day of Christmas. In many countries “Three Kings Day” is when holiday gifts are exchanged.
Along the Gulf Coast of the USA, January 6th is seen as the start of Mardi Gras revelry. The day marks the birth of the “The Maid of Orleans”, so it is only appropriate that the Krewe of Joan of Arc will inaugurate the season at 7:00 PM with a march through the French Quarter.
Following a ceremonial blessing of the sacred sword in front of St. Louis Cathedral, the procession concludes after a rendition of “Happy Birthday”, sung in front of Joan’s statue on Decatur Street.
Located on the Atlantic coast of southern Spain, the port of Cadiz is considered the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe. In the first century AD, the Roman poet Martial composed a list of gifts and amenities suitable for Saturnalia feasting, including “a female dancer from Cadiz”.
Two millennia later, people there still take entertainment quite seriously. A highlight of the season is a competition between various musical ensembles: choirs and comparsas, quartets and chirigotas. These categories are further broken down into Adult, Youth, and Children’s groupings. The final honors will be awarded on February 21st, but the contest kicks off at the Gran Teatro Falla on the evening of January 18th.
It was in the 1930’s that unused petroleum barrels were first re-purposed to create the percussive family collectively known as steel pan. In the decades since, pan has been embraced as the national instrument of Trinidad & Tobago. Panorama, a series of competitions between steel ensembles, is an intrinsic part of the festive tradition.
Queen’s Park Savannah in Port of Spain will host the final concert on the last Saturday before Lent. Yet Panorama is a truly national affair; musicians off all ages practice for months for a shot at the prize money and glory. On Tobago, the smaller of the republic’s Twin Islands, preliminaries for medium-sized bands will be held on January 29th.
Everyone knows that in New Orleans, organizations called krewes stage Mardi Gras parades, famous for elaborate and colorful floats.
Despite the vaguely maritime connotations, “krewe” is actually a made-up word. In the 19th century, after the Louisiana territory became part of the USA, English-speaking residents often found themselves excluded from the colonial French traditions of Carnival. As the newer residents formed social networks of their own, they adopted a pseudo-archaic spelling; “k” was intended to evoke ye olde orthography.
And the floats don’t really float.
Those searching for a more authentic nautical experience would do well to head north across Lake Pontchartrain. On February 8th, the community of Slidell will host a parade of boats.
The flotilla is scheduled to set on from the Marina basin at 12 PM. Hauling a precious cargo of cups and plastic beads, they will chart a course along the firehouse canal before returning to the Dock of Slidell. This epic voyage will be organized by the intrepid and charmingly named Krewe of Bilge.
Folks in Louisiana and Alabama carry on a running debate regarding which state can claim the USA’s oldest Carnival. Pierre LeMoyne d’Iberville, a French navigator, explored the Mississippi River’s delta in 1699. On the 3rd of March, he and his men landed in Plaquemines Parish, LA. Realizing it was Fat Tuesday, d’Iberville named the spot Pointe du Mardi Gras. Advantage: pelican state.
Yet a group of homesick, shivering sailors hardly makes for a proper bacchanal. Mobilians are quick to point out their city was founded a full 17 years before New Orleans. It is also a matter of historical record that the first Carnival parade in The Big Easy employed fixtures recycled from the celebration in Mobile.
Both arguments have their merits, and the controversy is unlikely to be settled anytime soon. Controversy of a less jovial sort is the focus of Margaret Brown’s brilliant documentary The Order of Myths. Nuanced and empathetic, humorous and horrifying in turn, the film explores the festive season of 2007. More than 140 years after the abolition of slavery, Mobile’s Mardi Gras emerges as a largely segregated affair. Brown is especially adept as she illuminates the evolving relationship between Helen Meaher and Stefannie Lucas. Meaher is chosen as Queen by the all-white Mobile Carnival Association; Lucas, an African-American teacher, represents the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association.
In addition to her involvement with MAMGA, Ms. Lucas is a member of The Conde Explorers , the city’s first integrated parading organization. The 2020 parade will roll on February 8th. Following the procession, a formal ball for members and guests will be held at the Mobile Convention Center.
The Campanile, a graceful bell tower, is Venice’s tallest structure. The original was built in 1515, at the height the city’s power as an independent republic. Its design was copied exactly following a collapse in 1912.
The building may be a reproduction, but the traditional Flight of The Angel – in which a young lady descends on a wire – is authentic. Historically the Angel would land before the Doge and present him with a bouquet. (There was also the “Flight of the Turk”, when the seraphic beauty was replaced by a subjugated Ottoman – an exercise in wishful thinking the republic’s rulers seldom achieved in reality.)
The 2020 ritual will take place in Piazza San Marco at noon on February 16th.
On The Caribbean coast of northern Colombia, the city of Barranquilla can boast of being the birthplace of Sofia Vergara and Shakira. Talented and beautiful as both ladies are, neither has yet been recognized as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”. That’s the designation awarded by UNESCO to the city’s famous Carnaval.
This year’s jubilee formally runs from February 22nd through the 25th. On the evening of February 20th, the Estadio Romelio Martinez will host a welcoming gala for the Carnaval Queen. For 2020, that title will be bestowed upon Isabella Chams Vega, a 23-year old communications professional. A Barranquilla native, Her Majesty has studied at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.
The next night’s entertainments will include a concert featuring a number of Colombian acts, salsa from Panamanian legend Ruben Blades, and reggae-tinged pop courtesy of UB40.
Rio De Janeiro —
Carnaval in Brazil has many aspects, and in recent years there has been a renewed appreciation for more informal, street-level partying. Yet there’s no denying that its most telegenic expression is the procession of escolas de samba. Since 1984, this Pyongyang-meets-Vegas extravaganza has taken place in the Sambodromo, a concrete stadium massive enough to accommodate some 90,000 spectators and the hundreds of members who march with each samba school. The event – held over the nights of Carnival Sunday and Monday – is an elaborate competition. Creativity is prized, of course, but each group is evaluated according to a fairly strict set of criteria.
By most estimates there are around 100 active escolas in Rio de Janeiro, arranged in hierarchical groupings from A through E, but not all of them make it to the big stage. Some, such as Portela or Mangueira, appear each year, and most attention is focused on the Grupo Especial, those who received the most points during the prior year’s Carnaval. Those schools failing to impress are downgraded to an inferior level.
Participating samba schools are allocated a slot of around 85 minutes to dazzle the crowds and a panel of more than 40 judges. The basis of each presentation is samba de enredo, a specially composed theme song that ties together choreography, lushly ornamented floats, and various visual motifs.
The samba is propelled by the bateria, and ensemble of up to 350 musicians playing the large drums known as surdos, as well as smaller rhythmic instruments: cuicas, ganzas, and reco-recos. By custom, each school must also include an Ala das Baianas, a “wing” of women arrayed in traditional garb associated with the state of Bahia.
With so many components to coordinate, top points are awarded to the escolas that demonstrate the highest degree of harmony. Another prized value is evolucao; the spectacle is expected to unfold gradually as the procession advances upon Praca da Apoteose or Apotheosis Square, at the southern end the Sambodromo.
For 2020, the main event will take place on the nights of February 23rd & 24th.
If asked to list places known for pre-lenten debauchery, most people would rank Belgium above Saudi Arabia and Utah, but well below Brazil, Venice, and Trinidad. Yet anybody who has enjoyed a chalice of Trappist ale or a fruit-infused lambic knows that Belgians have a knack for brewing up good times.
The Flemish town of Aalst, some 30 kilometers northwest of Brussels, is just one of many communities where Carnival is celebrated with panache. Activities sure to inspire mirth include a Sunday afternoon parade on the 23rd. The next day, the Grote Markt will host something called a “broom dance”, designed to sweep away bad spirits. Things conclude the night of the 25th, with the ceremonial Popverbranding, the burning of a giant doll meant to symbolize the passing of the festive season.
Port of Spain –
In 1797, when Trinidad first became a British possession, Carnival posed a conundrum for the authorities. The tradition was popular with the Francophone elite as well as the working classes. To suppress it would have caused outrage if not revolt. Yet the festivities often offended Anglo-Saxon sensibilities, and some feared the custom undermined the hegemony of white Britons.
An 1849 ordinance made it illegal for blacks to wear masks, and limited Carnival to a two-day period. Decreeing that drunken raucousness was somehow incompatible with observance of the Sabbath, public gatherings were forbidden until Monday morning – February 24th this year. However, savvy revelers soon noted that no time was specified, and Jouvert (“daybreak”) was born. Tradition dictates that participants gather at dawn to smear each other with mud, oil, paint, or some mixture of the three.
Homer’s Back Yard–
“IT’S ASH WEDNESDAY EVERYBODY. PUT DOWN YOUR GINS AND CONFESS YOUR SINS!”
Santo Domingo –
The Western hemisphere’s first Carnival took place in La Vega, a Spanish settlement in what is now the Dominican Republic. That was in 1520, and for centuries the festivities – like those in other lands – were calculated according to the vagaries of The Church’s liturgical calendar. Things began to change in the 1930’s, when the dictator Rafael Trujillo took power.
In accordance with a nationalist agenda, the ancient ritual was re-purposed to coincide with Dominican Independence Day. Accordingly, Carnival may or may not overlap with celebrations elsewhere. In other lands, folks enjoy several consecutive days of debauchery. Throughout the DR, parades take place each Sunday during the entire month of February. For a relatively small nation, an impressive diversity of folkloric characters can be seen on the streets. This includes shaggy polar bears, men dressed as buxom, chicken-stealing matrons, and a range of fearsome demons.
Eschewing clichéd pitchforks, Los Diablos are armed with vejigas – inflated bladders of hogs or bulls that dangle from a strap. Revelers who get too close risk a sharp blow across the buttocks. Authorities try to regulate the degree of inflation, and vejigas may not be fitted with objects likely to cause lasting injury. Such strictures notwithstanding, the customs introduces an element of demonic pain to the earthly delights of the fiesta.
The most talented and colorfully costumed troupes descend on the capital’s waterfront during the national holiday on February 27th. In 2020, this means that after the bacchanal has ended in most other countries, Dominicans will have two extra days when they have to worry about getting whacked in the ass by the devil. However, it’s unlikely that many people will complain, so long as the merengue rhythms are loud and the Presidente pilsner is kept cold.