In the olden days, Catholics created festivities, carnivals, before the start of the solemn season of Lent. These carnivals are a celebration of life and participation is for everyone. Today, carnivals have almost nothing to do with religion, but the festivities and the participation of everyone is still in place.
Travelers usually go to a destination to visit it. We explore the city and watch some shows or check out the sights. A carnival is different in that we do not just come to see it, we are part of the show. We are a part of the crowd that makes the carnival. You may have seen on the news about these carnivals but apart from the grandiose costumes, you probably have no idea what they are celebrating. Here are some carnivals that you may want to consider joining if you have not been to one before.
Carnival in Rio de Janeiro
For many, the carnival in Rio de Janeiro IS the carnival to visit. Colorful, feathers, extravagant, glamorous, bodies upon bodies dancing to samba while parading the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Can you imagine about two million people per day showing up to participate in this carnival? This carnival takes place 40 days before easter and lasts four days. Join the crowd as someone will surely grab your arm and teach you some dance grooves. This carnival is huge and is actually not just one big one, but several smaller carnivals called blocos. The highlight of the carnival is a two day competition at the end. Here, dancers from the country’s best samba schools present their numbers. You can watch them at the Sambadrome. The pictures you have seen with sky-high feather headgear most probably comes from this carnival. It is noisy and colorful and may seem unmanageable, but this carnival has been going on since it was introduced by the Portuguese in the 18th century. So just absorb the music, live the moment and dance your worries away. Forget about 50 shades of gray. Here it is a million shades of vibrant color.
New Orleans Mardi Gras
In the 18th century, secret societies (krewes) paraded the streets of New Orleans. Now even bigger than ever, it is one of the most visited events in New Orleans. The Mardi Gras is up and alive again 10 years after the devastation of hurricane Katrina. Come with loads of beads and trinkets as you will surely trade some of them with other Mardi Gras participants. The more colorful the beads, the better. This carnival takes place two weeks before Fat Tuesday, which is the day before Ash Wednesday.
Carnevale de Venezia in Venice, Italy
Although not as famous as the carnival in Rio, this carnival is the oldest, dating back to 1162 to celebrate its victory over Patriarch of Aquileia. Be pursued along the streets of Venice by masked participants. The masks were used once to conceal the identity of the people who participated. Now it is not the primary purpose, but wearing a mask is part of the Carneval. The carneval de Venezia takes place usually end of January to start of February. In the evening attend one of the secret masked balls. There are several of them with varying strict dress codes. And buy a mask as a souvenir. Venezian carnival masks are as famous as the event in itself. If you think that attending a ball can be too stiff, an option is to join a carnival pub crawl. The Carnivale de Venezia takes place two weeks before Ash Wednesday.
Aalst Carnival in Aalst, Belgium
Politicians (both local and international) get a handful of mockery and satire at the Aalst Carnival. Perhaps a great way for the citizens to show their opinion without the unpleasantries of a public debate. In 2010, UNESCO included this carnival on the list of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This starts on the Sunday before Lent. This carnival is 600 years old and it looks like it is here to stay. One of the highlights is when the mayor hands over the key to the city to the Carnival Prince. Come here dressed as the politician you want to mock and get prepared to defend your politics.
Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago
This carnival starts Monday preceding Ash Wednesday. It starts with a ritual called dutty mas where one covers the body with mud, oil or body paints. No use trying to avoid them as you will soon enough be covered in it as well. The carnival in Trinidad and Tobago is the biggest in the Caribbean. Everyone has a glass of rum and you are supposed to have yours, too. Do bring some small change as you will be sought after by the blue devils. They are men painted in blue and wearing devil masks and asking money from everyone.
Ati-Atihan in Kalibo, the Philippines
There is no way you can come to this festival “just to observe”. The locals will not allow that. As soon as you are here, you will be dragged on by the costumed participants and be encouraged to dance. This carnival is held to honor the Santo Nino (Infant Jesus) and held in the third week of January. Ati-atihan means “be like an Aeta”. Aetas are aborigines who first settled on the island of Kalibo. Although this is a religious festival, both Catholics and non-Catholics come and participate in this carnival which is the most flamboyant in the Philippines. It has also inspired another festival honoring the Santo Nino, the Sinulog Carnival of Cebu.
Keep on traveling.