This is it! The light at the end of the tunnel, the most wonderful time of the year. Carnival season. Can somebody say “Amen”?
It is true that many places, particularly smaller Caribbean islands, have taken to hosting celebrations later in the spring or summer. In such locations, the familiar rituals – parades, costumes, musical competitions – are very much on display. It would be downright mean-spirited to deny the joy experienced by locals and visitors alike. Yet such galas are essentially commercial in nature, tropical exuberance whipped up in response to market demand.
In contrast, The Tradition that developed organically through the ages always culminates on the final Tuesday before Lent. Since Lent precedes Easter in the western liturgical calendar, and Easter is a movable feast, the precise timing of Carnival varies from year to year. In 2019, “Fat Tuesday”, or Mardi Gras, falls on March 5th, providing a longer-than-usual opportunity for orgiastic abandon. Or something like that.
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 January, February and March are so eagerly anticipated, in so many places around the world.
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. In New Orleans, Fat Tuesday itself features parades by Rex and Zulu, arguably the most prominent of old-line Krewes. 2019 will see the launch of La Sociéte Pas Si Secrète Des Champs-Élysées.
After an autumn marked by violent upheaval along the Champs-Elysees in Paris, the “Not So Secret Society of the Elysian Fields” will focus of the more blissful implications of the name. Chuck Rogers, owner of Buffa’s Bar & Restaurant in the Marigny neighborhood, will preside as King Kronos.
Hordes of spectators keep the more established organizations from the French Quarter’s narrow streets. Kronos and his entourage of arrivistes may be somewhat lacking in pedigree, but compensate in nimbleness. They’ll roll along the perimeter of the Vieux Carée, setting out from the corner of Rampart and Esplanade. After the procession, the Back Room at Buffa’s will host a ball – open to the public – featuring the Davis Rogan Band and the legendary Al Johnson. Carnival Time indeed.
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 competition between steel ensembles, is an instrinsic 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 nationwide affair; musicians of 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 will commence at 7:00 PM on the evening of January 24th.
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 March 1st, but the contest kicks off at the Gran Teatro Falla on the evening of January 26th.
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 Assocation; 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. They will roll at 6:30 PM (CST) on February 16th. Following the procession, a formal ball for members and guests will be held at the Mobile Convention Center.
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, Anglo-American 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 English 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 16th, the community of Slidell will host a parade of boats.
The flotilla is scheduled to set out from the Marina basin at 11 AM. 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.
The Campanile, a graceful bell tower, is Venice’s tallest structure. The original was built in 1515, at the height of 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 2019 ritual will take place in Piazza San Marco at 11 AM on February 24th.
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 – climaxed on the day before Ash Wednesday. 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 rescheduled to coincide with Dominican Independence Day. The vagaries of the calendar mean 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 2019, this means that Santo Domingo’s Carnival will wrap up a week earlier than it does in neighboring countries. It is unlikely that many people will complain, so long as the merengue rhythms are loud, the Presidente pilsner is kept cold, and they manage to avoid getting whacked in the ass by the devil.
Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium was established in the year 50 as a Roman outpost on the Rhine River. The cathedral and its twin spires came through World War II more or less intact, yet Cologne occupies part of Germany’s industrial heart and was subject to heavy allied bombing during World War II. In 1941, the construction of an air-raid shelter uncovered the ruins of a 3rd-century villa; the location is now the site of the city’s fascinating Romano-Germanic Museum.
The Museum’s centerpiece is a well- preserved mural of Dionysos. Appropriate enough, given that Cologne hosts what many consider the most vibrant pre-lenten party in the German-speaking world. Streets resound with spontaneous shouts of “Alaaf!” and the cadences of Buttenrede, a form of rhyming, humorous rhetoric. “Butten” means a cask or keg, such containers typically serving as a lectern for the orators.
As in other places, merriment rages until Ash Wednesday, but the highlight is Rose Monday parade, attracts over a million spectators and is broadcast on national television.
Der Wieberfastnacht, or Women’s Carnival, falls on the last Thursday before Lent. Throughout the day on February 28th, local Damen are free to kiss all the men they desire. Less pleasantly, leave is given to snip off the tie of any Herr foolhardy enough to wear one.
On The Caribbean coast of northern Colombia, the city of Baranquilla can boast of being the birthplace of Sofia Vergara and Shakira. Talented and beautiful as both women 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 March 2nd through the 5th. On the evening February 28th the Estadio Romelio Martinez will host a gala for the Carnaval Queen. For 2019, that title will be bestowed upon Carolina Segebre Abudinen, a 22-year old student of Business Administration.
The royal entertainments will include a concert by Carlos Vives, a singer and actor from Bogotá. The Grammy winner will soon gain greater fame in the USA with the premiere of La Voz, a program on the Telemundo network inspired by NBC’s The Voice.
The effects of the Reformation in England included the gradual decline of many medieval customs. On Shakespeare’s “Scepter’d Isle”, the tradition of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday is a faint echo of the sensual indulgences that once prevailed throughout most of western Europe.
In the city where the Immortal Bard set “Romeo & Juliet”, gnocchi are the Carnival carb of choice. The savory treat is said to have been part of Verona’s celebration since 1531, when heavy flooding drove up the price of basic foodstuffs. Tomasso Da Vico, a local aristocrat, made a large donation of flour to the poor, who mixed it with potato to form the delectable dumplings. In his will, Da Vico stipulated that the distribution be repeated every year on the last Friday before Lent. This being Italy, he also generously bequeathed funds for wine.
Da Vico’s largesse will be commemorated on March 1st. Beginning in the early afternoon, the streets around Verona’s immaculately preserved Roman amphitheatre fill up with happy subjects awaiting the arrival of Papa del Gnocco. The symbolic founder of the feast is cheered wildly as he rides his noble mount (a donkey), brandishing his regal wand: an oversized fork impaling a sequined Gnoccho. Buon Appetito!
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 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, an 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 2019, the main event will take place on the nights of March 3rd & 4th.
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. However, savvy revelers soon noted that no time was specified, and Jouvert (“daybreak”) was born.
Of course, efforts to rein in public enthusiasm were doomed, and these days Carnival preparation is virtually a year-round process in Trinidad & Tobago. Yet the Jouvert custom persists. On March 4th, friends, lovers and total strangers gather at dawn to smear each other with mud, oil, paint, or some mixture of the three, to a pounding soca beat. It’s even more pleasant than it sounds!
If asked to list places known for unbridled hedonism, 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 Sunday afternoon parade. The next day, the Grote Markt will host something called a “broom dance” designed to sweep away bad spirits. Things conclude the night of March 5th, with the ceremonial Popverbranding, the burning of a giant doll meant to symbolize the passing of the festive season.
And speaking of Flanders…
When midnight rolls around: