Carnival History

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Carnival, also known as Mardi Gras, is an annual celebration on the last days before the season of Lent. Lent, a forty-day holy season observed by Roman Catholics around the world, is a time of self-denial and abstinence from merrymaking. Mardi Gras, as it is called in Europe and the US, or Carnival, as South America and the Caribbean call it, is the last chance for indulgence and revelry before the temperance of Lent. However, it is no longer confined to only those days before Lent; many Carnivals are held at other times of the year.

The term Mardi Gras refers to a single day, which is also known as Shrove Tuesday. However, Mardi Gras and Carnival celebrations take place over several days, culminating on Shrove Tuesday under the old system, or on another day important to that region. The celebrations last different amounts of time in different areas, but tend to be between three days and two weeks long.

A Grenadan carnival costumed paradePre-Lenten celebrations have a long history; their earliest forms appeared in the European Middle Ages, about a millennium ago. They have developed in different ways at different rates around the world, but share the same general beginnings. Originally, lavish parties, with the guests often in masks and/or costumes, were held in Europe. As the European colonies spread across the Atlantic, they brought these traditions with them. However, over the next few centuries, the traditions diverged, modified by outside influences and new ideas that gave each area a unique celebration.

At present, most Carnival traditions are similar, but each part of the world may have its own particular differences, and often enough the holidays are held at different times of the year. In Cuba, for example, it is celebrated in July to commemorate the revolution of the late 1950s. The rest of the Caribbean generally has Carnivals spaced out in such a way that they wonít overlap with anything else, allowing people to visit and enjoy the various slightly different celebrations on different islands. In Europe and the US, it is still celebrated right before Lent.

A steel drum band at the Grenadan carnivalOne of the things that varies most from place to place is the music associated with Carnival. Cuba has Spanish, African, and Chinese influence, and plays a variation of Congo music on a variety of percussion instruments and a Chinese instrument like an oboe. The southern Caribbean islands have lots of steel drum music, which originated in Trinidad. Brazilian Carnival music and dance (known as samba) originated in the slums of Rio, and is now displayed in huge outdoor theater and considered among the most important parts of Brazilís Carnival. In the US, parades depicting scenes from mythology and sometimes satire are held by day or night and organized by private krewes. Such parades are dominated by dancers and banners in the colors green, gold, and purple, and often followed by elaborate, private balls. These are important parts of New Orleans Mardi Gras. Various traditional African, Native American, and Cajun (descended from French Canadian) traditions have worked their way into Mardi Gras around the US as well, with costumes, dances, and parties.

A few things are fairly universal concerning Carnival, however. Carnival almost always involves dancing, music, costumes, and partying in the streets. It is generally a public event, with every person having a chance to participate. There is often a particular set of music and dancing that is reserved for that time of year. Perhaps most importantly, Carnival is usually an event that can be enjoyed by all, regardless of race, class, or nationality. Indeed, many carnivals actively try to bring in tourists, and are stimulating to the local economy. All in all, Carnival is seen almost worldwide as a time to enjoy.

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