For centuries, Christian cultures celebrated Carnival as a time to enjoy a little last-minute fun before the penitent Lent season began. For days leading up to Ash Wednesday, the official start of Lent, people would partake in their favorite indulgences. On the last day, Shrove or Fat Tuesday, they would eat a large feast to prepare for the reverent fasting and self-denial that was to come. This tradition of mid-winter hedonism still exists around the globe. And although its righteous origins are somewhat forgotten (there's nothing "reverent" about lots of sweaty dancers covered in mud and wearing feather hats), Carnival is still a fantastic season to get an introduction into a particular culture. Here's our run-down of the world's peppiest, messiest, nuttiest and craziest Carnival celebrations.
[See a photo recap of the World's Craziest Carnivals]
Many Caribbean islands celebrate Carnival, but anyone will tell you that nothing compares to Trinidad's take. In the capital city, Port-of-Spain, the celebration goes on for a full month, culminating with raucous activities spread over the three days leading up to Ash Wednesday. First there's Dimanche Gras, a Sunday "pre-game" party where the Carnival King and Queen are named. Next up: J'Ouvert, an early Monday morning parade where painted revelers trail their favorite calypso and soca bands through the streets. The beat goes on to Carnival Tuesday, when groups of intricately costumed masqueraders and bands flood the streets of Port-of-Spain, competing to earn recognition by the National Carnival Commission as the best carnival band of that year.
Good to Know: For J'Ouvert (from the French term jour ouvert or "open day"), participants douse themselves in chocolate, mud, oil and paint to represent the evil spirits they hope to ward away. Get in on the fun by coming dressed -- or colored -- appropriately.
The tradition of Carnival is older than the United States, but Americans have still put their own spin on the ritual. Consider the Big Easy's Mardi Gras: An all-out, no-holds-barred blowout where we Yanks laissez les bons temps rouler (or "let the good times roll"), then rouler some more. Starting as early as two weeks before Ash Wednesday, krewes (the different social groups that sponsor parades and balls throughout the city) begin marching along Uptown New Orleans' streets, decked out in their finest costumes and riding the most extravagant floats. Festivities really reach fever pitch the weekend before Fat Tuesday along Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, where the most outrageous behavior congregates. The good times come to an end on midnight Wednesday, when police officers symbolically clear the streets to mark the start of Lent.
Good to Know: The tradition of distributing colorful bead necklaces was introduced in the 1920s and they've now become a lasting symbol of Mardi Gras. Some distributors in the French Quarter will ask females for "payment" (i.e., flashing) to receive the trinkets. Head to the Uptown parades, and you can get plenty of beads from the krewe floats, all while keeping your clothes on.
Since the 14th century, the West Belgium town of Binche has hosted its own pre-Lenten party, one so distinctive and renowned that in 2003, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named it one of its Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Bichois begin making preparations several weeks -- even months -- in advance for events that largely take place the three days before Ash Wednesday. For six Sundays beforehand, however, "carnival societies" hold drum and dance rehearsals in the city streets. These societies are grouped together and dress by common theme. By Quinquagesima, the Sunday before Lent, each society dances in the heart of town wearing their handmade costumes for the first time. The next day, Shrove Monday, the younger Bichois join in, dancing in front of the Town Hall. The Gilles de Binche, or appointed court jesters, lead Tuesday's street parade dressed in wooden shoes, belts with bells, wax masks, green glasses and hats made of ostrich plumes.
Good to Know: During Tuesday's parade, the troupe of Gilles de Binche throws Seville oranges to the surrounding crowds to symbolize the beginning of spring. Wear something you don't mind ruining; the Gilles have pretty good aim and the oranges are quite messy.
This city's Carnevale is largely associated with the intricately designed Venetian masks worn by revelers. And there are options: The bauta mask covers most of the face but leaves an upturned jaw line for eating, drinking and talking; white larva masks cover the entire face and are often times worn with ornate hats. And then there's the medico della peste masks, which feature a striking beak reminiscent of the plague masks 16th century doctors would wear while treating patients. Historians believe the custom of covering your face for Carnevale began in 15th century so that visiting nobles could let loose without disclosing their identity or social class. In olden days, you were allowed to wear a mask around town from Dec. 26 until midnight on Shrove Tuesday. In modern times, the city has downscaled the fun to just the two weeks before Lent.
Good to Know: Venice uses its wet persona to its advantage and takes the tradition of the Carnival parade to the canals. Two Sundays beforehand is the Festa Veneziana, when boats sail from the Grand Canal to an awaiting food fair along the banks of the Cannaregio River.
Unlike the others on our list, Patrino Karnavali corresponds with the Eastern Orthodox Lenten season. Celebrated in the Western Greece city of Patras, this festival officially starts Jan. 17. Over the course of several weeks the city hosts treasure hunt games where up to 70 carnival groups compete against each other by answering a series of complex riddles and performing scavenger hunts and physical challenges. The Saturday before Clean Monday -- the Orthodox equivalent of Ash Wednesday -- starts with nihterini podarati, or a night parade that features the contestants of the treasure hunt games. Those same contestants come out in disguise, riding satirical-themed floats for Sunday afternoon's Grand Parade. Later that day, Patras hosts a spectacular close with a fireworks display and the destruction of the "Carnival King," an elaborate float burned Viking-burial style at the St. Nikolaos Street wharf.
Good to Know: Abstaining from eating meat is characteristic of the Lenten season; to prepare, the residents of Patras host Tsiknopempti, a city-wide barbecue 11 days before Clean Monday. Not only will you find plenty of tavernas offering the best cuts this day, but live bands take to the streets to perform.
In the 15th century, Rio borrowed heavily from European carnival customs, holding masquerade balls similar to what you'll find in Venice. But by the 19th century, Brazilians had introduced their own flair to the holiday, one that still continues to present day. Much fanfare surrounds the city's free street parades, which are held for up to a month before Fat Tuesday. Various blocos (groups of partiers usually organized by neighborhood) often host these lively marches through the downtown area, with free-flowing drinks and cranking samba music. Equally important is the Samba Parade, held the two nights before Ash Wednesday in Rio's Sambodromo (a purpose-built amphitheatre that is also located in the downtown area). Each competing "samba school" prepares for up to a year to showcase the best dances, elaborate floats and costumes all designed around one central theme. And even after a recent fire at a Rio warehouse destroyed thousands of samba school outfits, sets and floats for this year's fest, participants still expect a spectacle come parade time. On the last night of Carnaval, a committee chooses a winning performance.
Good to Know: Of all the street parades, the most popular are the three held by the Banda de Ipanema, a mega-band formed by a collection of area blocos. In some years, more than 20,000 partiers (including an impressive number of drag queens) have followed the bands along the parade route from Praça General Osório to Ipanema Beach. Banda de Ipanema holds its first parade the Saturday two weeks before Carnaval, the second on the Saturday right before and the last parade on Shrove Tuesday.
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