1.a period of public revelry at a regular time each year, typically during the week before Lent in Roman Catholic countries, involving processions, music, dancing, and the use of masquerade.“the culmination of the week-long carnival”
synonyms: festival, fiesta, fête, gala, jamboree, celebration, fest“the town’s carnival”
2.NORTH AMERICANa traveling amusement show or circus.
synonyms: fair, amusement park, fun fair, amusement show, circus, big top, midway“he worked at a carnival”
Once Christmas season is officially over in the Caribbean, it’s time to dig out your dancing shoes and start thinking about Carnival, that hedonistic celebration that culminates on Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. (In the United States, that day and this celebration are known as Mardi Gras.)
Trinidad, its original home, is the still the biggest and wildest party, but there are many other islands where you can experience Carnival, almost year-round.
Carnival in the Caribbean has a complicated birthright: It’s tied to colonialism, religious conversion, and ultimately freedom and celebration. The festival originated with Italian Catholics in Europe, and it later spread to the French and Spanish, who brought the pre-Lenten tradition with them when they settled (and brought slaves to) Trinidad, Dominica, Haiti, Martinique, and other Caribbean islands.
The word “Carnival” itself is thought to mean “farewell to meat” or “farewell to flesh,” the former referencing the Catholic practice of abstaining from red meat from Ash Wednesday until Easter. The latter explanation, while possibly apocryphal, is said to be emblematic of the sensuous abandon that came to define the Caribbean celebration of the holiday.
By the beginning of the 18th century, there were already a large number of free blacks in Trinidad mixed with French immigrants, earlier Spanish settlers, and British nationals (the island came under British control in 1797). This resulted in Carnival’s transformation from an implanted European celebration to a more heterogeneous cultural froth that includes traditions from all ethnic groups contributing to the celebration. With the end of slavery in 1834, the now completely free populace could outwardly celebrate their native culture and their emancipation through dress, music, and dancing.
A Moving Tradition
From Trinidad and Tobago, Carnival spread to many other islands, where the tradition fused with unique local cultures—salsa showcases on Antigua, for instance, and calypso in Dominica. Some celebrations have moved off the Easter calendar and are celebrated in the late spring or summer.
In Haiti, locals and visitors alike can celebrate “Haitian Defile Kanaval,” one of the larger carnivals in the Caribbean islands that extends across multiple Haitian cities. This Carnival celebration takes its Fat Tuesday celebrations seriously, with feasts, costumes, music, and all kinds of frenzied fun.