Carnival Is Coming, and It Wants to Cleanse Your Soul - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Carnival Is Coming, and It Wants to Cleanse Your Soul

By Skip Kaltenheuser


Because who wouldn’t want to eradicate last year’s woes?

Since 1998, I’ve embraced carnivals across varied cultures. Or perhaps they’ve embraced me. You should let them find you too.

It started on impulse, after learning of Cologne’s Fasching celebration during a dinner party in Potsdam. I excused myself and caught a midnight train where sleep was derailed by loads of tipsy clowns in transit to the Rosenmontag — Rose Monday — parades. As the train rolled in with the sun, streets began to vibrate with bass drums from trickles of costumed figures — Huns, Goths, Romans, peasants, what-nots and ubiquitous red noses, many with wheeled kegs of Kölsch beer. By midmorning, hundreds of thousands lined the main parade route. Briefed on Karneval traditions, from a strategic balcony I watched three hours of bands, horseback riders and satirical floats. 

By midnight on Shrove Tuesday, I was hooked. How could anyone refuse a spirit’s sacrifice to take the year’s woes away, its gift of a clean slate on Ash Wednesday? Many carnivals later — in Europe, the Canary Islands, the Caribbean, Latin America, Canada and New Orleans — I am still seeking the dangled annual redemption, the traditions that evolved from ancient times, from Rites of Spring, wine god bacchanals, hopeful plantings and inspired fertility. And yes, plenty of sexual undercurrents. Revelers dumb down their superegos to give unshackled flesh its due before society reimposes its restraints, returning the wayward to their spiritual high road.

A great place to start is Nice, with its Bataille de Fleurs — battle of flowers — where tons of blossoms are thrown at the crowd.

Some festivals, like those in Nice, Basel and the Rhineland, are grand in scale, almost like Broadway productions. Others are simpler, but if you open your mind you’ll soon be hooked. Small towns in Portugal celebrate with participants warming up beforehand in small historic stables equipped with brandy stills, where they hang hams before heading to parades and dances in Torres Vedras, or the medieval fishing village Peniche or Cabanas de Viriato, home of the comedic Dancas dos Cus (aka butt dance).

For the uninitiated, a great place to start is Nice, with its Bataille de Fleurs — battle of flowers — where tons of blossoms are thrown at the crowd. This year’s theme? The King of Energy, with global warming obviously on the mind. Parades stretch over two weeks starting February 11. Once primed, folks can then turn to places like the Rhineland or villages in the Black Forest, where there’s more emphasis on the pagan traditions that dominated those villages back in the Middle Ages and before. There, the lengthening sun inspires banishment of winter’s darker spirits with masks reflecting village folklore. 

To catch your breath, try the Protestant stronghold of normally buttoned-down Basel, at the intersection of Swiss, French and German culture, where revelers go wild for three days of Fasnacht around the clock. It starts the Monday after Ash Wednesday, and to get the full monty, get there before the 4 a.m. start. But be warned: You’ll be among the shivering multitudes in the Marktplatz in a blacked-out city. Thousands of fifes and drums usher in sharp social satire painted on giant gas lanterns. Then competing masked brass bands command attention, deliberately playing off-key. The energetic Guggenmusik incentivizes captive listeners to drink up, sparing their minds the internal dissonance rocking their ears.

Carnival is, unsurprisingly, not for everyone. Citizens of host cities are as split as the American electorate, with many heading for the hills this time of year. People who can’t take a joke need not apply; nor should folks who fear clowns. Those particularly vulnerable to sleep deprivation can abandon all hope. Politically correct sticklers may find the social satire and gender-bending role-playing eye-opening, to say the least. But for those venturing nothing, the carnival spirit’s do-over is elusive.

Dedicated carnivalers might stretch to Valencia’s Las Fallas fire festival, starting March 15. It’s not exactly Carnival so much as a great mix of traditional religious celebrations, lively satire via wicked citywide sculptures — doomed to burn — and bombastic pyrotechnic explosions worthy of a civil war. Check out Caribbean island carnivals, some pre-Lenten but many pegged to emancipation or independence, for even more options. 

But pick one. Get out there and play the fool. We all deserve to get an edge on the madness at least once in our lives.

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