Carnival is one of the world’s biggest festivals and it happens every year in February or March. During Carnival, around the world, you can expect to find huge parades, beautiful costumes, dancing, music, and traditional foods. It’s a time for people to enjoy themselves after the hard winter is over and before the more serious, religious traditions of Easter.
It’s hard to say how many countries celebrate carnival because each one has its own traditions and both dates and length of the celebrations vary. But more than 50 countries have some kind of celebration around this time of year.
A short history of carnival around the world
Carnival has a long history going back to ancient times. Its origins lie in the Roman end-of-winter festival called Saturnalia. Christianity took the idea of Saturnalia and turned it into a celebration that led up to the 40 days of Lent. During Lent, Christians gave up rich foods like meat, eggs and sugar. Thus, Carnival became the last day to enjoy these treats.
Nowadays, not many people give up something for Lent, but carnival gets more and more popular every year. Some cities are famous for their celebrations. Here are five of the best carnivals around the world.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Brazil is home to the biggest carnival in the world with about 2 million people partying in the streets every day. The Rio carnival is all about samba music and the parades of samba dancers in colorful costumes. These parades are actually a competition between different samba groups. The different groups are judged on their float, costumes, and, of course, their samba dancing.
The biggest parades occur in the Sambadrome—a special stadium big enough for tens of thousands of spectators—with ticket sales making $40 million.
Although the biggest carnival in Europe happens on the Spanish island of Tenerife, the most famous celebration happens in Venice. Venetians and tourists wander through the streets in elegant 16th-century clothing and wear elaborate, hand-decorated masks.
The Carnevale de Venezia is a quieter kind of celebration than Rio. Instead of samba parades, people attend masquerade balls in Venice’s palaces or watch traditional plays in the open-air theater in St Mark’s Square.
Mardi Gras, New Orleans
In New Orleans (USA) the carnival is called Mardi Gras, meaning ‘Fat Tuesday’ in French.This carnival dates back to when Louisiana was a French colony. It’s named after the way people ate all the fatty foods before giving them up for Lent. Mardi Gras even has its own traditional cake—the king cake, a ring of brioche flavored with cinnamon and topped with icing in the Mardi Gras colors; purple, green and gold.
Nowadays, locals and tourists celebrate with street parades where riders on decorated floats throw gifts to the waiting crowds. These aren’t just any gifts. Strings of beads are a famous ‘throw’ as well as plastic cups, coconuts, decorated shoes and even toilet brushes.
Oruro Carnival, Bolivia
Orura, a small mountain city in Bolivia, hosts a celebration that mixes ancient pagan and Spanish Catholic traditions from the 17th century in a carnival unlike any other. 400,000 people come to Oruro to celebrate and enjoy the spectacle.
The Oruro parade lasts for 20 hours and covers a route of 4 km! In fact, the parade is so important it’s been given UNESCO-protected status. Carnival’s Dance of the Devils, performed for hundreds of years, is a timeless highlight of the festivities. Dancers wearing masks with horns play the devils and they try to defeat the Archangel Michael. More than 50 groups of devils and angels dance in the Diablada. Some groups having not changed the movements of their dance for over 100 years.
Trinidad and Tobago
The biggest Caribbean carnival in the world brings a colorful, lively 2-day party to the streets of Port of Spain on the island of Trinidad and Tobago. Here the joyful music comes from Caribbean steel drums and people drink rum and dance the night away to celebrate freedom and liberation from slavery.
Pre-Emancipation, the French slave owners used to hold Carnival balls while the slaves had their own party. When the slaves were freed, they turned their traditions into a public festival. Now, there is a two day parade where costumed bands and masqueraders take part in the festivities. Parades feature unique characters like Moko Jumbie, towering high above the crowds on 3-4 meter stilts. There is also an international steelpan competition, a Monarch of Calypso competition and of course the titles of Carnival King and Queen to win.
Practice your English for carnival with this quick quiz
Try out our carnival-themed vocabulary quiz. You’ll find the right answer highlighted in green.
Download ELSA Speak now on iOS or Android to improve your English communication skills and practice more carnival related vocabulary.
If you want to learn more vocabulary for celebrations, try our quiz about Lunar New Year. Or learn different ways of saying ‘thank you’ inspired by the North American Thanksgiving holiday.