Starting on March 4, revelers in countries across the world will once again celebrate Carnival. The origins of the word, from a Latin phrase that means “removing meat”, hint at the nature of this exuberant holiday — traditionally the last chance for Roman Catholics and other Christians to indulge in rich food and other pleasures before Lent.
Carnival began in medieval Europe, but spread across the world as Catholicism followed in the wake of European powers such as Portugal and Spain. Today it is a truly global phenomenon, and celebrations from Brazil to India tend to have much in common, such as the selection of a King and Queen. Even so, the influence of local history and culture makes every version unique. If you want to experience Carnival for yourself, consider learning some key terms and traditions before you go.
For example, colorful processions are a typical feature of Carnival. In New Orleans, groups known as krewes organize parades featuring elaborate floats and costumes for Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday — the local incarnation of Carnival. Every krewe (an archaic or fancy spelling for the English word “crew”) has its own style and history, bearing names such as Zulu, Thoth, Proteus, or Druids. The krewe is a true New Orleans institution: Rex, the oldest existing krewe, was founded back in 1872.
In Rio de Janeiro, hundreds of similar street parades called blocos happen throughout Carnaval (Portuguese for Carnival). As Felicia Bryson of The Rio Times tells us, a bloco can materialize at any time of day, without any advance notice. Bloco organizers often give them names that reflect their joking, irreverent spirit. Tens of thousands can attend a single parade, drawn by the food, drink, music, wild costumes, and boisterous atmosphere.
For a different take, head for Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago, where Carnival is known as mas, short for mask or masquerade. Mas has its origins in the fusion of several cultures, including French, British, and African. Masqueraders sport outrageous outfits, inspired by everything from devils to American naval uniforms, and many pay to join in costumed celebrations organized by special groups called bands.
Carnival has as many faces as it has names. In the former Portuguese colony of Goa, India, Carnival is called Intruz; in Malta, the knights of the Order of St. John founded il-Karnival ta Malta, which continues to this day. With its many variations, all on the same basic theme, it is a perfect (and fun) example of how the local and global interact to shape cultures everywhere.
If you happen to find yourself in Rio for Carnaval this year or in the future, make sure to check out our recommendations for five off-the-beaten-track things to do in Rio de Janeiro.