Why you should care
Because Carnival is, hands down, the craziest festival of all.
To everything there is a season: Christmas is a time for caroling and giving presents, Thanksgiving is for overeating (gratefully) and Carnival … is for going wild.
What began as a Christian celebration filled with last-minute fun before the penitence of Lent is now an excuse for millions of people to indulge in all sorts of extravagant displays of hedonism.
It’s an excuse for millions of people to indulge in all sorts of extravagant displays of hedonism.
Every year, hordes of tourists flee the winter cold and find warmth in the sensual parades of Rio de Janeiro, collect colorful necklaces and doubloons in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, and attend sophisticated masquerade balls in Venice. But these well-known festivals are neither the craziest nor the oldest of them all.
Oruro, Bolivia, has been celebrating a midwinter festival for more than 2,000 years. The native pagan ceremonies were banned by the Spanish in the 17th century, but the locals used Christian icons to conceal images of their Andean gods and put Christian saints in the place of other local minor divinities. With time, both traditions blended into one, full-blown Carnival. Fifty different folk groups decked out in dazzling, resplendent costumes perform traditional dances along the streets for three days.
The Caribbean island of Trinidad has a Carnival tradition dating back to the late 18th century, when French plantation owners organized fancy masquerades and balls before the start of Lent. But slaves, who could not take part in the festivities, formed their own parallel celebration called “Canboulay” that involved calypso music, fighting with sticks and singing songs to mock their masters. Shortly after Trinidad became a British colony, in 1797, some of these traditions were banned out of a fear that they would spur riots, but the irreverent character of the festivity is still very present. In fact, the tiny nation enjoys its festival so much that in its capital city, Port of Spain, the music plays and the people party for an entire month.
Elsewhere, the pre-Lent festivities have been used to subvert social norms. In Sydney, for example, Mardi Gras grew out of gay rights marches, held annually since 1978, when hundreds of protesters were arrested, forcibly outed and often fired as a consequence (homosexuality was a crime in New South Wales until 1984). Today’s Mardi Gras parade, attended by over half a million people, maintains its political flavor, with marching groups celebrating LGBT culture and promoting issues like gay marriage.
In Germany … it’s customary for ladies to bring a pair of scissors to work and cut off the men’s ties.
Even Germans — not exactly known for their sense of humor — like to get in on the act. Paraders dress as witches, distribute candy and use their broomsticks to sneakily raise the skirts of unsuspecting spectators. On Carnival Thursday — known as “women’s day” — it’s customary for ladies to bring a pair of scissors to work and cut off the men’s ties. It’s a symbolic way of cutting the guys down to size, and they’re often rewarded with a kiss for their troubles. The tradition is so common that stores even sell cheap-and-ugly ties just for the occasion.
Other Carnival festivities leave sexual politics at the curb, going for downright spooky instead. The fainthearted might want to avoid Binche, Belgium, for example, where clownlike performers take over the streets to the beat of the drums while donning strange wax masks, wielding sticks and throwing gifts of lucky oranges at the crowds. These bizarre creatures, called Gilles, are known for their excellent aim, so spectators are advised to wear something they don’t mind getting splattered. And beware: It’s considered rude to throw the “gifts” back.
Whether you’re looking to prance around scantily clad, kiss a stranger, repurpose your Halloween costume or mutilate your boss’s tie, there’s a Carnival out there for you — so let the good times roll!