The Cultural Geography of Carnival Celebrations around the World

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Ash Wednesday falls on February 18 this year – and that means Carnival celebrations all over the world are happening right now. As it is technically a Christian holiday stemming from the need to gorge and party before the traditional 6-week fast of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, Carnival celebrations are held all over the world wherever large Christian populations migrated years ago. Each one, however, assimilates unique local customs and traditions into the festivities – making each Carnival special depending on cultural geography. Learn here how local pagan and indigenous traditions have been forged into different Carnival celebrations in Brazil, New Orleans, Quebec, Italy, and Russia.

Brazilian Samba from Africa

Rio de Janeiro is famous for the world’s largest Carnival celebration, with millions of people flocking to its days’ long party from all over the world. Near naked participants and flashy feathered costumes are a highlight of the parade, but the one element that any visitor will never forget is the deep samba drum beats that resonate from all corners of the city throughout the celebration. While the Portuguese brought Catholicism to Brazil, they also brought hundreds of thousands of African-originated slaves. And those slaves brought their own form of beat-based dancing that would become samba. Samba, seen as lewd by Portuguese elite, was practiced in secrecy by lower classes up until slavery was outlawed in the 1880s.[i] Its free expression is now fundamental to Brazilian culture and represents the unique cultural geographic origins of the modern Brazilian population.

New Orleans Mardi Gras Masks from France

New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebration is really a French celebration transplanted to the Americas when French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville landed 60 miles south of what is now New Orleans the day before the French “Fat Tuesday” celebration in 1699. When Beinville founded New Orleans a few years later, Mardi Gras was celebrated by the elite in private parties, which evolved into fancy public masquerade balls a few years later.[ii] The masks allowed people from different economic classes to break through social boundaries and be elite or lower for a day.[iii] Float riders are required to wear masks today to keep with tradition.

Colored beads and masks are a ubiquitous presence during Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans.  Photo: Loren Javier
Colored beads and masks are a ubiquitous presence during Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans. Photo: Loren Javier, CC BY-ND 2.0

Quebec – Winter Carnival

Quebec hosts the third largest Carnival celebration in the world – in the cold. The same French-Canadian settlers that founded New Orleans founded Quebec’s celebration, but the geographic reality of snow and cold in this winter wonderland have created unique Carnival traditions seen nowhere else in the world. A city-wide snow castle competition offers prizes for participants, but the most wintery tradition is probably the giant snowman mascot, Bonhomme Carnaval, who was invented in 1954 for the first city-wide Carnival celebration by Quebec’s government.[iv]

Venice Carnival – from a Sea Victory

The Venice celebration is one of the longest globally (20 days) because it actually began as a military victory festival that coincided with the days before Lent. Due to its geographic location on the sea, Venice, an independent republic for centuries, had to fight numerous battles against foreign navies throughout its history. A victory in 1162 led to such a tremendous celebration that the city chose to commemorate it annually, and it gradually mixed together with the days before Lent to become a Carnival celebration. When Venice fell to Austrian invaders in 1797, Carnival was outlawed. It only started again in 1979 via a government initiative to attract tourists – a successful endeavor as the celebration is one of the biggest in the world, attracting millions of tourists annually.[v]

Masks are an important part of Carnival celebrations in Venice, Italy.  Photo: Stefan Insam
Masks are an important part of Carnival celebrations in Venice, Italy. Photo: Stefan Insam, CC BY-SA 2.0

Russian Maslenitsa

In Moscow, Maslentisa is the celebration of the end of winter, historically a pagan, weeklong festival aligned with the spring equinox. The advent of Christianity within Russia, and, along with it, Lent, led to moving the holiday to before the religious fasting period. Hence it is now a Carnival celebration! The name of the holiday comes from the Russian for butter, and comes from the pagan tradition of cooking buttery, warm round pancakes from buckwheat flour to invoke the sun to come back for spring. The pinnacle of the celebration is the burning of Lady Maslenitsa, a pagan symbol of rebirth and regeneration for spring that has taken on religious context with the sacrifice of Christ.[vi]

From the beaches of Rio de Janeiro to the blustery cold of Moscow and Quebec, carnival is celebrated all over the world, but in drastically different ways deriving from cultural geography and unique local histories.


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References

[i] Brazil. 2014. Brazil Dance. http://www.brazil.org.za/brazil-dance.html#.VN3pWvnF-H4.

[ii] Mardi Gras New Orleans. 2015. Mardi Gras History. http://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/history.html.

[iii] Ross, Phillip. 2 Mar. 2014. Mardi Gras History and Facts: The Real Meaning Behind These 5 ‘Fat Tuesday’ Traditions. International Business Times. http://www.ibtimes.com/mardi-gras-history-facts-real-meaning-behind-these-5-fat-tuesday-traditions-1558852.

[iv] Carnaval de Quebec. 2015. http://carnaval.qc.ca/en/.

[v] Penn State. 2015. Cultures and Customs. http://sites.psu.edu/mgeitnerrcl/tag/carnival-of-venice/.

[vi] Shubnaya, Ekaterina. 2011. Of Russian Origin: Maslenitsa. Russiapedia. http://russiapedia.rt.com/of-russian-origin/maslenitsa/.


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