People celebrate carnival around the world the week before Lent, a Christian period of fasting and reflection. Traditionally held in areas with large Catholic populations, carnival often includes a parade with costumes and music- yet each country has their own unique traditions. Let’s look at some unique ways people celebrate carnival around the world.
Carnival in Europe
For Carnaval de la Laetare in Stavelot, Belgium, during the 4th Sunday of Lent, a group of 200 men called the “Blancs-Moussis“ dress in white with long red noses and shower the crowds with confetti and dried pigs’ bladders used like balloons. The men are a parody of the 15th century monks who were forbidden from celebrating the carnival after being punished for excessive laziness.
Before Lent in Bulgaria (with related traditions in the Balkans and Greece) towns hold processions of kukeri- men dressed in sheep or goat hides, with horned, wooden masks and large bells tied to their belts- walk and dance with costumes and bells to scare evil spirits away from the village. Along with folk theatre productions, the kukeri are thought to bring a prosperous harvest, health, and happiness for the year, and often times visit homes.
Italy has many Carnevale festivals. The Carnevale di Venezia is the largest in Italy, with 3 million annual visitors. It is famous for its elaborate masks and costumes, and a contest for “La Maschera più bella” (the most beautiful mask). Try this delicious carnevale recipe for chiacchere (Italian fried dough with sugar).
Another famous, yet peculiar tradition, is the Battle of the Oranges in Ivrea, Italy. Thousands of locals are divided into team, to represent a battle that took place long ago. The legend has that a miller’s daughter (and newlywed) refused to allow the local duke to spend a night with her and chopped his head off. The (quite violent) orange throwers (with red hats) represent these revolutionaries who countered the duke, and the carriages play the duke’s guard. Watch this wild video (oranges start around 3:25!).
In Germany, Carnival Thursday is called Altweiber (Old Women’s Day) in Düsseldorf or Wieverfastelovend (The Women’s Day) in Cologne. In some towns, women storm the government buildings, cut men’s ties, and traditionally are allowed to kiss any man that passes them. There are parades, and hundreds of thousands of people dress up in costume, despite cold temperatures.
The Carnaval de Nice, France has hundreds of thousands of colorful flowers on floats in the parade that passes through the streets as costumed riders toss flowers out onto the crowds.
In the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, Shrove Tuesday (the Tuesday before Lent) is called Pancake Day. It is a Christian tradition to eat special rich foods and to use up the ingredients (eggs, milk, sugar) before the fasting season of Lent. Olney in Buckinghamshire, UK has held a pancake race since the year 1445, to see who can run the fastest while flipping pancakes in a pan!
Maslenitsa- Мáсленица- is Carnival in Russia. Right before Lent, many Orthodox Christians enjoy the foods (milk, cheese and other dairy products) and playful behaviors that are forbidden during the prayerful, spiritual time of Lent. People enjoy blini (pancakes), play in the snow, dress up, dance, and say goodbye to winter. The mascot is a brightly dressed, straw figure–”Lady Maslenitsa” (Lady Shrovetide)–is on parade through town. At the end of the festival, the figure is thrown on the bonfire, signifying an end to winter.
Carnival in the Americas
Haiti‘s Kanaval festival are one of the largest in the Americas, complete with parades, costumes, music, and dancers. In the rural areas around Port-au-Prince, there is a unique, traditional carnival tradition called Rara that has African roots, and often makes political statements or critiques and is attended by many vodou leaders. The processions are similar with dancers in bright costumes, and complete with bands of musicians playing on homemade instruments. Here is a nice video of a young girl in Haiti, making a mask for Kanaval.
For Carnaval en Perú, a yunza (enormous tree) is planted somewhere, and filled with presents and gifts. Everyone dances around the yunza, and then they take turns cutting the tree with an ax so that it falls down and people can get the gifts. The couple that gives the final cut before the tree falls down, is in charge of the organization of the yunza next year.
The Carnaval celebration in the Dominican Republic represents an “upside-down” world, where men dress as women, livestock dominate their ranchers, and the devil “Diablo Cojuelo,” is banished to Earth and punished by humans. There is a lot of merengue and bachata music for dancing, and the diablos swat people with veijgas–dried bladders blown up like balloons.
Guatemala also celebrates carnaval with lots of fun for the kids. Cascarones are empties egg shells that are filled with confetti, and then covered in tissue paper. During Carnival, the cascarones are broken over heads, showering kids with the confetti.
The biggest Carnival celebration in the world is the famous Carnaval of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with million of spectators and thousands of samba dancers parade down the Sambadrome. See this article on how kids celebrate carnaval in Brazil.
What other fun or unique traditions from carnival around the world are we missing? Share them in the comments or on our facebook page!