If you only know New Orleans, Louisiana, for one thing, it’s probably Mardi Gras — French for “Fat Tuesday” — the annual street festival that gives the city its notoriously hedonistic reputation. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I can only assume that, like the legendary groundhog, you have only now emerged from your Idaho survival bunker to bask in the glory of a new conservative dawn. Well, partying in the streets is probably not your thing anyway — but the rest of us could really use a drink (or ten) right about now! Get ready, because we’re about to go on a quick tour of the various ways to celebrate Carnival around the world.
Let’s ‘Pregame’ With A Quick History Lesson
Mardi Gras is just one local variant of Carnival — a tradition that dates back to medieval Europe. In the Catholic calendar, Carnival is the festival season that comes before Lent (the season of fasting that lasts for six weeks from Ash Wednesday until Easter). Knowing that no fun would be had for some time, medieval Europeans went buck wild for the week preceding the fasting season.
The word carnival (variations include carnaval, carnevale, karneval) derives from the Latin carnis (meat; flesh) + the verb levare (to remove) and is probably a reference to the Church’s ban on eating meat during Lent. To prep for the fast, people would gorge themselves on the richest food they could get their hands on.
Carnival celebrations around the world are characterized by street festivals, parades, masquerades and an air of creative anarchy — for a few days per year, those at the top of the social order allow it to go topsy-turvy: hierarchies flip upside down, jokesters blaspheme with impunity and traditional roles and identities become fluid.
Let’s see how people in six cities celebrate Carnival around the world.
Carnaval in Nice, France
Let’s hop from the French-Creole-speaking Gulf Coast to the French-speaking Mediterranean Coast: the port of Nice in the south of France. While most Carnival celebrations last for one week, the Niçois party for two weeks straight! Ah, Nice: the town so nice they do Carnival twice.
Although the Nice Carnival has been around since at least 1294, its most famous tradition began in the 19th century. In 1830, Charles-Felix (King of Sardinia and Duke of Savoy) moved his winter court to Nice. Over the years, the king transformed into a central icon of the carnival. Charles-Felix still participates in the parade, although now in puppet form: he can be spotted every year among an entourage of giant puppets that tower over the heads of their operators as they march through the city. According to tradition, before the festivities begin the King seizes the key to the city, which is on display throughout the celebrations, before being burned on the last day.
The celebrations attract over a million participants every year, although the COVID-19 pandemic has obviously rained on the parade in the last couple of years. In 2021, festivities were canceled, and in their place, a giant coronavirus sculpture was erected on Nice’s main square and was burned at the end of the traditional carnival celebration, in keeping with tradition.
- La bataille de fleurs (The Battle of Flowers) — on this day, revelers roll through the streets on parade floats and throw flowers to visitors along the parade route
- Les carnavaliers — a craft tradition that is passed from generation to generation, the carnavaliers build and decorate the parade floats of the official procession
Carnevale in Venice, Italy
Venice is home to the classic old-world Carnival experience. The city has been celebrating Carnival longer than anyone; records indicate as far back as 1094. The traditions established here, like wearing masks, have influenced every Carnival that has come after.
In the opening ceremony, called Volo dell’Angelo (Angel’s Flight), a beauty queen or random celebrity descends on a wire from the Campanile di San Marco (the bell tower of St. Mark’s Basilica) into the piazza below. The square is almost unrecognizable with so many people crowded onto it, and there’s even a parade on the Cannaregio canal on Sunday, the famous Corteo Acqueo.
- La maschera più bella (the most beautiful mask) — a designation given by a jury of designers
- Colombina (little dove) — an archetypical character of the Commedia dell’Arte, but also a kind of classic masquerade mask that only covers the eyes
- Galani — a typical sweet
Carnaval in Cadiz, Spain
Spain has several cities that celebrate Carnival; the best known are Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands and Cadiz in Andalusia. The Carnival in Cadiz, known for its humor and satirical parades, has been celebrated since the 16th century. Originally inspired by Venice’s festivities, it’s the oldest carnival in Spain. The party lasts 11 days, and on Saturdays it is mandatory to disguise yourself.
- Chirigotas — musical ensembles that compose and sing mock songs.
- Romanceros — a pair of entertainers who tell humorous rhyming stories to passers-by
Notting Hill Carnival in London, UK
A traditionally Catholic celebration like Carnival doesn’t get much traction in a country whose state religion was created to circumvent Catholic law. Henry VIII’s Church of England allowed him to divorce his wife, but the Anglicans may have thrown out the festive baby with the proverbial bathwater. Today, instead of dancing in the streets on “Shrove Tuesday,” the English subvert the social order by eating pancakes for dinner (yes, I know, so very sad).
Thankfully, the Caribbean-British community of London has picked up the slack with their own (completely secular) take on Carnival — a summer street festival full of reggae and salsa music. Thrown every year in August, Notting Hill Carnival is one of the biggest street festivals in the world. It started in 1966, but its antecedent was a “Caribbean Carnival” organized in 1959 by the immigrant community of Trinidad and Tobago as an inclusive response to fraught race relations at the time. The effort has certainly succeeded: Notting Hill Carnival has become a cultural institution and in 2006 was voted by Britons for recognition as a national icon.
- Mas — short for “masquerade,” if you are dressed up for the carnival, then you are “playing mas”
- Bogle — a dance move created by dancehall legend Gerald “Bogle” Levy
- Liming — if someone asks you to go for a lime during the carnival, it means they want to chill out with you
Kölner Karneval in Cologne, Germany
You probably weren’t expecting to see Germany on this list, were you? Well, Cologne isn’t like the rest of Germany. The city, whose celebration features a parade that stretches over six kilometers, is internationally recognized as a stronghold of Carnival culture. Der Kölner Karneval is also known as die Fünfte Jahreszeit (the Fifth Season), probably because the preparation and celebration of Carnival takes over three months!
It all starts with die Narrenzeit (Fool’s Time) at 11 a.m. on November 11th. This marks the beginning of Carnival preparations, a tradition going back to the 19th century (so don’t accuse Kölners of forgetting Remembrance Day). The proper Carnival season starts on the 6th of January and doesn’t end until the evening before Ash Wednesday.
Famous figures of the Carnival include the virgin, the farmer and the prince. The virgin, usually a man dressed as a woman, represents the mother of Cologne; the farmer, who represents loyalty and audacity, keeps the city keys; and the prince is the star of the show.
- Kölle Alaaf! — a phrase from the Kölsch dialect. We can’t can’t really translate it, but shout it out at the Carnival anyway!
- der Prinz (the prince) — the most important symbolic figure of the festivities
- Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) — the day of the official parade
Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and Recife, Brazil
You can’t talk about carnival without mentioning… (drumroll)… Brazil! Because February is summer in Brazil, the other meaning of carnis is on full display as scores of dancers dressed in little more than feathers samba down the streets.
Rio’s carnival is probably the most iconic in the world, and it’s also one of the biggest, with an average of 2 million people on the streets for the duration of the festivities. Of course, again, COVID has put a dent in things. Festivities were canceled in 2021, and a number of cities in Brazil decided to preemptively cancel celebrations in 2022 as omicron spiked. Rio has committed to putting on a show this year, but it will be postponed until April.
Not to be outdone by Rio, Salvador typically has the highest number of celebrities per square meter. And Recife’s parade, the Galo da Madrugada, which translates to “Cock of the Early Hours” (that’s “cock” as in “rooster”), holds the world record for biggest Carnival parade ever: 2.5 million people participated in 2013!
But how did this all begin? Like most aspects of Brazilian culture, Carnival evolved from a fruitful clash of cultures. One can trace its origin (especially musically) to informal gatherings among Brazilian slaves in the 18th century and to older European Carnival traditions brought to Rio de Janeiro by the Royal Court. Just like in Nice and Cologne, symbolic royalty still plays a part in festivities. Latin American countries have King Momo, the King of Carnival (Rei Momo in Brazil, Rey Momo in Spanish-speaking South America). Every Carnival celebration appoints its own King Momo.
Written by Chiquinha Gonzaga in 1890, Ô Abre Alas (Oh Open Wings) was the first song composed specifically for the Carnival. Carnival is Brazil’s most famous and popular festival, a beautiful demonstration of the people’s creativity, artistic talent and joy of living.
- Sambódromo — the long avenue where samba schools and carnival floats pass by during the festivities
- Trio elétrico — a custom-built truck with powerful amplifiers to carry musicians through the streets
- Folião — anyone dancing and enjoying Carnival
This article was originally published on February 8, 2017 and has been updated.