Celebrate Carnival with Cultures Around the World!

From samba in the streets to lavish masquerade balls, cultures celebrating Carnival certainly know how to throw a party, each adding their own unique spin to the festival.

Feb 7, 2020

From samba in the streets to lavish masquerade balls, cultures celebrating Carnival certainly know how to throw a party, each adding their own unique spin to the festival.

Bright costumes, pulsating music, and gyrating in the streets —each year, Carnival promises fun-filled festivities for all, from Venice to New Orleans. So where does this colorful celebration come from? Let’s look at the roots of Carnival and where you can go to enjoy the best carnival festivals around the world. 

Carnival heats up in Rio
The morning feels hot and humid... and it’s only 7 a.m. It’s February in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s warmest time of year. Even in the early hours, the city begins preparing for its biggest celebration of the year, Carnival. 

Blocos (street bands) start at sunrise, with speakers pumping music heard blocks away. Brass and drum bands prepare for non-stop samba. Hundreds of these street parades will dance their way across the city. 

In the Sambadrome stadium, the official parade of samba schools will march at night with float processions and dancers dressed in colorful feather costumes showing off their impossible moves (how do they shake their hips that fast in heels that high?!) 

Partygoers stay fueled by snacking on deep-fried savory salgados with a fizzy drink, from the white-sand beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema to the Dois Irmãos (twin mountains). Grab a drink and try your best attempt at samba (yes, it’s as hard as it looks). Cool down in the water, throw on a sarong, and rejoin the festivities lasting from morning into the night! 

While the third week in February launches the official festival, parties throughout the city already started heating up weeks ago. Perhaps it’s the endless drinks flowing or blazing 40- degree heat, but Carnival in Rio feels like a fantasy, or fantasia as the locals say.

But Brazilians aren’t the only ones celebrating. From masquerade balls in Venice, Italy, to bead tossing along Bourbon Street in New Orleans, cultures around the world carry on the age-old tradition. 

The Brazilians started celebrating in the 1600s, but the roots of carnival go back to the Middle Ages, starting with Italian Catholics before spreading to Spain and France. Then colonialism brought the traditions to the Western Hemisphere. 

So what’s Carnival all about?
Carnival marks a period of celebrating and feasting leading up to fasting and solemn religious observance during Lent. Christians observe Lent starting on Ash Wednesday, which is always held 46 days (40 fasting days and six Sundays) before Easter Sunday. 

The word “carnival” itself means “farewell to meat”, which refers to the Christian practice of abstinence, such as refraining from eating meat or drinking alcohol to focus on spiritual growth and self-examination.

And what better way to prepare for a period of religious penitence than with all-out debauchery and decadence? Cultures around the world that celebrate Carnival certainly know how to throw a party, each adding their own unique spin.

Carnival celebrations around the world
In Venice, Carnevale attracts over 3 million visitors to celebrate with lavish masquerade balls and historical reenactments. The celebrations kick off with the Volo dell’Angelo (Flight of the Angel) ziplining over St. Mark’s Square.

Cadiz in Spain carries on the country’s oldest Carnival celebration. Locals dress in fancy costumes called tipos while coros musicians perform throughout the city. The people of Cadiz add their own sense of humor to the holiday; chirigotas perform satirical songs poking fun of politics and pop culture.

The New Orleans Mardi Gras has its one-of-a-kind Carnival with a few familiar nods to its European roots. Processions of revelers parade around the street dressed in masks and costumes of purple, green, and gold. In “The Big Easy”, outrageous behavior gets rewarded with colorful plastic beads and trinkets tossed from the balconies above.

The Caribbean Islands add a tropical twist. The Martinique Carnival celebrates with a massive bonfire. Haiti has one of the largest Carnival traditions in the Caribbean, with a “Fat Tuesday” celebration of music and costumes. 

But Trinidad started it all in the region. As the birthplace of Carnival in the Caribbean, parties in Trinidad are among the wildest, celebrating local culture with steel drums or calypso and salsa dancing, sometimes all year long!

No matter where you party, get on your dancing shoes and kick off the Carnival season by celebrating the diverse cultures that carry on this colorful tradition all over the world. 

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ALLISON MICHELLE DIENSTMAN, CONTRIBUTOR
Working from her laptop as a freelance writer, Allison lives as a digital nomad, exploring the world while sharing positivity and laughter. She is a lover of language, travel, music, and creativity with a degree in Chinese language and literature.