Carnival season typically falls around February or March, and is full of celebrations that have their roots in Medieval Europe. Parades, street parties, and elaborate costumes are a few of Carnival’s external trappings. Traditionally, people would indulge in alcohol and feasting as one last extended hurrah before the more sombre season of Lent, when certain food items (like meat) would be forgone. In many ways, Carnival is all about breaking down societal norms and barriers as the new year begins to unfold, a practice that may have predated Christianity with pagan origins like the Roman festival of Saturnalia. As European culture began to permeate the world through colonization, Carnival took on additional customs and meanings as it was appropriated by diverse cultures from Africa and the New World. Today, Carnival is celebrated around the globe. While you may not be able to get to every celebration, here are a few that might be worth the trip—especially for travelers who like to party.
Venice Carnival, Italy
The Carnival of Venice dates back to 1162, and was declared an official holiday by the Venetian Senate in the 13th century. It was famous during the 18th century for its wild excess, so much so that the ruling King of Austria banned it from 1797 onward. Today, Carnival is no longer outlawed in Venice, and up to 3 million visitors flock to this picturesque city of canals and bridges to revel in the excitement. In times past, it was forbidden for the common folk to wear finery, but Carnival was a time when that barrier came down and rich and poor alike could hide behind beautiful masks. Even today, visitors can admire the beautiful masks for which the Venetian Carnival is famous, and a contest determines which one is the la maschera più bella—the most beautiful mask.
Nice, Carnival, France
During the Renaissance, art was not the only thing to spread outward from Italy. Carnival traditions moved into France, and today in Nice you can catch one of the most fun and unique parades in Europe. Jours charnels (days of meat) mark the last days before Lent begins, and locals might gorge on animal products (meat or dairy) before the start of the penitential season. Carnival in Nice is marked by elaborate parade floats with large paper mache puppets. The King of the Carnival presides over the parade, a tradition that began with the first parade itself, which was held in honor of the visiting King of Sardinia. Another high point of the parade is the Bataille de Fleurs (Battle of Flowers), where local blooms and blossoms are thrown from floats into the crowd below.
Mardi Gras, New Orleans, USA
Mardi Gras is the oldest Carnival celebration in the United States, and it only makes sense that it would be found in New Orleans—a former French stronghold that remains one of the most charming, Old World cities in the Americas. Mardi Gras is actually French for Fat Tuesday, which is the last day before Lent. To mark the feasting of Boeuf Gras (fatted ox), French settlers would parade through the streets of New Orleans carrying a giant paper mache ox head. Over the years, Mardi Gras developed into a city-wide celebration, with secret societies throwing invitation-only masquerades, and krewes allowing anyone who paid on the spot to jump aboard their elaborate parade floats. The custom of throwing beaded necklaces, coins, and other trinkets (all of which are appropriately referred to as throws) has pretty much become one of the most recognized parts of Mardi Gras.
The Rio Carnival, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The Carnival of Rio is one of the largest, most famous, and extraordinarily colorful celebrations in the world. While it has the costumes, floats, and wild partying that mark other Carnival celebrations around the world, it also has the Samba—a lively style of dance and music that stems from West Africa, brought to the New World with slaves carried into captivity by the Portuguese. Samba Schools are filled with students who spend months preparing elaborate performances for the Carnival Parade, which lasts for several days and is so massive that a special long stadium—The Sambadrome—was built just for it. Costumes are memorably elaborate with sequins and feathers, adding to the excitement of one of the world’s largest parades, which has grown more and more fantastic over the last century.
Notting Hill Carnival, London, England
This London venue is actually a recent invention, and moreover does not occur during Carnival Season. But since 1966, The Notting Hill Carnival in the Kensington neighborhood of London has become one of the world’s largest street festivals. This celebration of Black Culture started in Trinidad, where the first Carnival in the Caribbean started in 1833; prior to that date, black slaves were not permitted to engage in the festivities of their white masters. With a history like that, it only makes sense that the modern-day Notting Hill Carnival would be born out of racial tensions in London, and that the event has become a symbol of pride in the African Diaspora. The festival lasts for two days in the Summer, a normal season for festivities in England, which is somewhat separated from the Catholic customs of the continent. Even so, the Notting Hill Carnival has nothing to do with English culture, and everything to do with London’s Afro-Caribbean Community.
The Carnival of Binche, Belgium
Every year in the Belgian town of Binche, preparations for Carnival begin several weeks in advance with Sunday street performances of music and dancing. The last day of the carnival on Shrove Tuesday—the day before Lent—a select cadre of men dressed as clown-like Gilles dance around town to the sound of drums, waving sticks to ward off evil spirits. Then they gather to parade in elaborate hats with massive plumed arrangements of ostrich-feathers, while throwing oranges at the crowd of spectators. The oranges are considered good luck, so throwing them back is not encouraged. Some of the rituals of the Binche Carnival go back to the 15th century, and its rituals have been described by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago
If you can visit the Caribbean in February or March, you’ll be able to catch the feathered, glittering, sequined excitement of the original Caribbean Carnival. In times past, the slave-owning elite would celebrate Carnival at masquerade balls, but with the emancipaion of slavery, former slaves and indentured servants would celebrate freedom with Canboulay, which involved mask-wearing and carrying burning torches made from sugar cane. Toward the end of the 1800s, the Canboulay was banned, but the public rioted and continued to celebrate the holiday. The unique steel drum music and colorful costumery of the festival has contributed to the development of Caribbean culture and new musical forms like Calypso and Reggae. The celebrations of Trinidad and Tobago during Carnival are a mix of European, African, and Native Indian traditions.
The Carnival of Cadiz, Spain
While many carnival celebrations around the world focus on glamour and excitement, the main draw of the Carnival of Cadiz is humor. The carnival lasts for about two weeks every year, though recitals and practice sessions in preparation for this event are year round. The participants in the carnival engage in rituals of humor that purge the problems of the day through irreverent parody, sarcasm, and mockery. In lieu of masks, many residents paint their faces in this epic display of counterculture and subversive entertainment, stretching back possibly before the 16th century. One of the main attractions are the musical groups in identical costume, called comparsas and chirigotas, performing satirical songs. Individual costumed Romanceros roam around town with a canvas displaying satirical stories, and pointing them out with a stick.