Carnival is an age-old, vibrant Catholic religious tradition practiced in countless locations around the globe. Every Carnival festival is an amalgamation of ornate costuming and age-old traditions. Each city’s Carnival is unique. The global history of Carnival season spans many countries and highlights remarkable stories of rebellion, the merging of social classes, and even abolition of slavery. Seven of the most spectacular Carnival celebrations from around the world are discussed below.
1. Carnevale (Venice, Italy)
One of Europe’s most elegant events, Venice’s Carnevale is known for its extravagant costumes and decorative masks. Approximately three million people visit Venice every year to witness this event. It is held each February during the run-up to Lent and starts with a religious procession through St. Marks’s Square.
The historic origins of this Carnival are somewhat unclear. Some scholars believe that it began as a series of pagan festivals in ancient Rome, while others speculate that it got its start a pre-Lenten Christian celebration. It did not become an official holiday until the late 13th century when it was recognized by the Venetian Senate.
In medieval times, those in the lower classes were not permitted by Venice law to wear extravagant clothes and finery. During the Carnevale, however, all people—regardless of their social rank—were allowed to don brocades, silk, and velvet. The bedazzled masks worn by everyone in attendance also guaranteed anonymity. The Carnevale di Venezia is one of the most famous Carnival festivals in the world, and to this day, attendees can witness thousands of revelers clad in delicate masks made from glass, leather, and even porcelain.
2. Trinidad and Tobago
Trinidad and Tobago are a twin-island nation in the Caribbean, and Carnival there began as a rebellion against slavery. Even after the emancipation of slavery in 1838, indentured workers and former slaves celebrated their freedom with Canboulay, a holiday that recognized the pre-abolition uprising.
Today, the streets fill up with calypso music, limbo, soca, and rum. Its heritage is reflected in the official starting time of 4 AM, which is 4 am, formerly the only time slaves could assemble without being noticed. Today, this Carnival features brilliant feathered costumes and plenty of wild parties.
3. Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)
The Rio Carnival is considered to be the most iconic of all Carnival celebrations. The main attractions of this Carnival are flashy, feathered costumes; distinctive samba rhythms; and long-standing traditions. The origins of the samba are rooted in the horrific history of slavery and colonialism. Slave traders from Portugal in the 16th century brought enslaved people from West Africa to Brazil. The slaves brought their own cultural, musical, and religious traditions, which are heard in the rhythms of samba. Today, over 100 samba schools fight to be crowned the best in this spectacular event. During Carnival, parades, music, and parties erpupt in neighborhoods all over the city.
4. Mardi Gras (New Orleans, United States)
Mardi Gras, French for “Fat Tuesday,” is the last day before Lent. After this day, people are not allowed to eat meat until the Lenten season is over. Mardi Gras is the oldest Carnival celebration in the United States, having been started by French settlers in Louisiana in the early 1700s. It runs from early January until Shrove Tuesday in February.
During this time, New Orleans turns into a non-stop cacophony of jazz bands, and parades of over-the-top floats featuring mythological characters fill the streets. This Carnival is famous for the beaded necklaces thrown by revelers on the French balconies overlooking the parade. Attendees compete to find and wear as many of these necklaces as possible.
5. Oruro, Bolivia
Oruro, which is situated high in the Andes in the Altiplano region of Bolivia, holds a memorable Carnival. Before the arrival of the Spanish, Oruro was known as Uru Uru and was home to the Aymara and Quechua people. When the Spanish tried to bring Christianity to these people in the 1600s, they hid their beliefs and rituals beneath a Catholic veneer.
Today, Carnival celebrations in Oruro are an amalgamation of indigenous traditions and co-opted Christian beliefs. The festival tells the story of the victory of good over evil through a theatrical parade that lasts for 20 hours.
6. Binche Carnival (Belgium)
This Carnival is held every year in the days preceding Ash Wednesday. Those who take part in the celebration choose one of several traditional characters, including Gillies, Harlequins, Pierrots, and Peasants. Gillies—uniformly masked men who proceed through the city causing chaos—are the most beloved. They do this to scare off bad spirits.
Apples and oranges are thrown, sticks are shaken, and hundreds of unblinking eyes stare out threateningly. Gillies are known for their wax masks, quirky behavior, straw-filled costumes, and wooden shoes. This Carnival is so revered that it has been named a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage event.
7. Notting Hill Carnival (United Kingdom)
Considered to be the biggest street party in Europe, this Carnival brings the music, color, and spirit of the Caribbean to West London every August. Similar to the Carnival in Rio, the parade is the main focus—around two million people dance through the streets of West London during the celebration. The party continues long after the various drum groups and samba schools have passed along the route.