Special Feature

Mardi Gras and Carnaval Handbook

by Kate Heyhoe


Mardi Gras (also known as Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday, the last party day before Lent) occurs on these dates:

Celebrations usually begin a few days earlier.

Carnaval & Mardi Gras Madness

"Let us commit a sin/spread open, sweaty, all steamy," sings Chico Buarque and he might have been thinking of samba. Take your right foot back half a step, put your left foot forward a quarter step, and bring your right foot back. Start again but with opposite feet and you have the basic samba step down. Now do it very quickly without moving your upper body but while writhing your buttocks furiously. Repeat for joyous hours and wear bright colors.    —From the Pryngo Guide to Samba Anthologies

Look out! February is the time of year when many good Christians turn into passionate party animals. And according to the Church, the revelry, food-fights, drinking and even sexy sambas are all okay. In fact, the Catholic Church actually helped turn this tradition of sinful behavior into a regularly scheduled event. Little did they know that the world would embrace Mardi Gras, or Carnaval, to the extreme.

Consider these Carnaval facts:

Carnaval means "farewell to the flesh" in Latin. It occurs just before Lent, the 40-day period of prayer and reflection prior to Easter, when Catholics and other Christians are required to give up the flesh and eat no meat. The Church, it seems, had tired of the pagan spring celebrations in Europe and was having difficulty persuading the partying populace that Lent was, as Martha Stewart would say, "a good thing." So they came up with this truce-like solution: give the people an officially sanctioned last hurrah before they cast off their sinful behavior. Thus, Carnaval came to be celebrated on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent. The name Mardi Gras, meaning Fat Tuesday, grew out of these Carnaval celebrations.

A Global Party: Even the most devout and respectable didn't need much excuse to party, and the tradition grew quickly. The French indulged in wine and sex (more so than usual, I suspect). Parades in Naples hoisted giant phallic symbols throughout the streets. Wild Carnaval celebrations popped up wherever the Church sent its missionaries. Today, the most flamboyant city-wide parties stretch from New Orleans to Mobile in the U.S., while Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Trinidad, Tobago, parts of Mexico, Spain and parts of Italy all developed their own traditions, frequently mixing the new religion with their own native rituals.

Summer in the South: In South America, the festivities get even more raucous and can last several days, as the time of year for them is inverted: they're wrapping up hot, steamy summers while North Americans and Europeans are just beginning to thaw out.

Mardi Gras

Masks and Masquerades: Wearing masks dates back to pagan rituals, in which the disguise was hoped to protect oneself from wandering evil spirits. Later, masks and costumes also served to disguise oneself during acts of wretched excess. In Venice, the most popular costume for remaining incognito was composed of a white mask (completely covering the face), with a black hood, a lace cape, a full-length cloak, and a three-cornered hat. Elaborate masquerade balls have become the opening event of Carnaval celebrations around the globe.

Food Fights: A Galician custom of Spain is to throw flour and bran. In Venezuela, some people throw tomatoes and eggs, although confetti is more popular. Water balloons used to be common, but Venezuelan officials outlawed them because they caused traffic accidents. Colombian children throw egg shells filled with colored or perfumed water.

Star Power: In 1954, Brazil's Rio de Janiero hosted a group of Hollywood stars to their city's Carnaval party. Publicity reports showed Erroll Flynn, Irene Dunne, June Haver, Edward G. Robinson and other celebrities samba-ing and cavorting at masked balls and parades, further thrusting the reputation of Rio's Carnaval into the limelight.

Brazilian Samba: The samba is so integral to Brazil's Carnaval that it has its own Superbowl-type event: the Sambadrome, where the country's leading samba schools literally strut their stuff. Some 100,000 revelers attend this live televised event. In 2000, these 14 Brazilian samba schools (which are more like communities of dancers, not teaching institutions) were joined by competitors worldwide to form the first International Samba School parade in the Sambòdromo. Broadcast around the globe, these sambas are a far cry from the antiseptic version made famous by Carmen Miranda—the true sambas of Brazil would appeal more to Larry Flynt than to Shirley Temple. The dance originated in Bahia, the northeast province of Brazil, and evolved out of ancient rhythms and undulating belly movements of African slave dances and rituals.

If you want to celebrate Carnaval as Brazilians do, start with a pitcher of caipirinha, a potent lime concoction that goes down smooth. It's made with cachaca, a Brazilian sugarcane spirit, but you can substitute vodka or white rum. Serve it with lots of little snacks, an outrageous costume, and a wicked night of samba.

Kate Heyhoe
The Global Gourmet


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This page modified December 2020