Carnival Celebrations Worldwide

Carnaval Parade in San Francisco

Bhautik Joshi / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

The word "Carnival" refers to the numerous festivities that occur in many Catholic cities every year prior to the Lenten season. These festivals often last several days or weeks and are widely popular celebrations of local history and culture. Residents and visitors prepare for Carnival festivities throughout the year. Revelers both young and old can enjoy numerous organized activities or party in the city streets with their families, friends, community members, and strangers.

Religious and Historical Significance of Carnival

Lent is the Catholic season that represents the forty days prior to Jesus' death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which usually falls in February. On certain days of Lent, Catholics are supposed to abstain from eating meat as a physical and spiritual reminder of Jesus' sacrifices. The word "Carnival" likely originates from the Latin term "carne levare," or "to remove meat." On the day before Ash Wednesday (Mardi Gras or "Fat Tuesday,") many Catholics ate all of the meat and fat in their home and held large parties in the streets as one last celebration before the penitential Lenten season. It is a time when all social classes could disguise themselves, congregate, and forget their usual tribulations. Carnival originated in largely Catholic Southern Europe and spread to the Americas during the age of exploration and colonization.

Carnival Traditions

All places that celebrate Carnival generally have the same activities, but each Carnival is infused with elements of local culture. During both day and night, revelers in the streets listen to music and dance, eat, and drink. Many cities hold balls and masquerades. The main tradition of Carnival includes parades through the city streets. Many cities hold parades with floats, which are enormous, decorated vehicles that can carry dozens of riders, who often wear very elaborate, colorful costumes and masks. Parades usually have themes, which often parody current local political and social problems.

What follows are some of the world's most famous and popular Carnival celebrations.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is home to the world's most famous Carnival and what many people consider to be the world's biggest and best party. The basis of Rio's Carnival is the samba school, which is a social club named after the famous Brazilian samba dance. Samba schools are based in different neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro, and rivalry among them is fierce. Members work throughout the year to create the best themes, floats, costumes, and dance performances. Over the four day celebration, schools parade and compete against each other in the Sambadrome, a building that can hold 60,000 spectators. Millions of people also party throughout the city and on Rio's famous beaches, Ipanema and Copacabana.

New Orleans, Louisiana

New Orleans, Louisiana is home to Mardi Gras, the most popular Carnival in the United States. Dozens of social clubs, called "krewes," parade through the streets of New Orleans over a six week period. The people on the floats or on horseback throw small presents to the spectators, such as beads, plastic cups, and stuffed animals. Revelers party in the city's French Quarter. Mardi Gras still occurs annually, even after Hurricane Katrina impacted the city in 2005.

Trinidad and Tobago

The two small islands of Trinidad and Tobago are known for having the best Carnival in the Caribbean Sea. Trinidad's Carnival has been influenced by African cultures due to the slave trade hundreds of years ago. On the two days before Ash Wednesday, revelers dance in the streets to the sounds of calypso music and steelpan drums.

Venice, Italy

Since the 12th century, Venice's Carnival has been well known for intricately created masks and masquerade balls. Throughout history, Venice's Carnival was banned numerous times, but since 1979 the event has occurred annually. Many events occur in the city's famous canals.

Additional Carnivals in the United States

Although New Orleans has the most visited Mardi Gras in the United States, some smaller celebrations include those in:

  • Mobile, Alabama
  • Biloxi, Mississippi
  • Pensacola, Florida
  • Galveston, Texas
  • Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Shreveport, Louisiana

Additional Carnivals in Latin America

Besides Rio de Janeiro and Trinidad, many more cities in largely Catholic Latin America celebrate Carnival. These include:

  • Salvador, Recife, and Olinda, Brazil
  • Oruro, Bolivia
  • Buenos Aires, Argentina
  • Mazatlan, Mexico
  • Some cities in Colombia, Uruguay, Panama, and the Dominican Republic

Additional Carnivals in Europe

Many more cities still celebrate Carnival on the continent where it originated. These include:

  • Viareggio, Italy
  • Tenerife Island, part of Spain's Canary Islands
  • Cadiz, Spain
  • Binche, Belgium
  • Cologne, Germany
  • Dusseldorf, Germany

Carnival Entertainment and Imagination

The activities of the Carnival season, developed over centuries from religious and cultural rituals, have become enormously popular in several cities around the world. Large crowds congregate in the streets to enjoy the extravagant parades, rhythm of the music, and colorful costumes. It's an exciting, creative spectacle that no visitor will ever forget.

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Richard, Katherine Schulz. "Carnival Celebrations Worldwide." ThoughtCo, Sep. 1, 2021, Richard, Katherine Schulz. (2021, September 1). Carnival Celebrations Worldwide. Retrieved from Richard, Katherine Schulz. "Carnival Celebrations Worldwide." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).