What is carnival? Through various sources, I have gathered an interesting selection of knowledge on what exactly this phenomenon is, so I’m going to try to break it down for you.
First of all – Carnaval in Spain is Capital C and three a’s. Here in Andalucia it heralds the beginning of a whole host of parties. When I traveled from Rome to Madrid this past year I sat next to a delightful Spanish lady who was more than happy to tell me exactly how I should make my way through the springtime, hopping from festival to festival.
Carnaval kicks off the month of February in Cadiz, the province just south of Sevilla. In my opinion you should then head east for the epic Festival de Las Fallas in Valencia, held in March. Then comes Semana Santa, holy of holies, and most famous in Sevilla for its pomp, circumstance and tradition. Here follows La Feria de Abril, also a Sevilla staple and depending on who you talk to – the sevillanos claim to fame. But wait, there’s more. There are flower filled patio competitions during Cruces del Mayo in Cordoba in the month of May, and the Festival de los Caballos in horse-crazy Jerez de la Frontera. Let’s not forget the pilgrimage to El Rocio in Huelva in June, closely followed by Corpus Christi. Before you know it, it’s Christmas and you are planning next year’s Carnaval costume.
I don’t believe anyone has ever said that the Spanish don’t know how to party. That’s because they could teach the rest of us a thing or two.
Carnaval appears to be a close cousin to the US Mardi Gras, most famous in the city of New Orleans. While it is not the same riot of purple, green and gold – it is indeed colorful. Think of Carnaval as Halloween for Spaniards. There are costumes and face paint, but no candy or trick-or-treating. Likewise (thankfully?) none of the breast-baring that goes on in Louisiana. For some reason, the Spanish have Halloween pegged as a time when people dress up in scary costumes. When a friend stepped out in a Burger King costume, they were baffled. “But Halloween costumes are supposed to be scary!” It is here in the last days of October that we came to the conclusion Carnaval is reserved for the funny stuff. Two Halloweens in one year? Well done, Spain!
If you look to the historic roots of this event, carnival is the precursor to the season of Lent. If you went to catechism classes when you were in elementary school, you recognize Lent as the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday where you can’t have M&Ms. Somewhere along the line the Church decided it was only right for its parishioners to abandon something for 40 days in an effort to relate to the suffering of Christ and company. How that turned into giving up chocolate, french fries or sex for a few weeks – I’m really not sure.
Let’s start with Ash Wednesday. Where are the ashes? Am I not in a Catholic country? In the US, many people observe this day of obligation on the Catholic calendar and step out at lunch to receive communion and the tell tale touch of ashes on their foreheads. So here I am, in Spain, and there are no ashes. What? I had the same reaction in 2004 when walking the streets of Granada. I thought church was a big deal here .. did I miss something? This year I saw one woman, with a small smudge high into her hairline, and thought AH HA, I found one! But really .. just one? More concerning to me is where are the donuts? Fat Tuesday is Faschnacht Day, after all.
While I have never attended carnival here in Spain, I think the end result is costumes and drinking. In watching my students describe carnival to their pen pals the main focus seems to be “people dressed in types that aren’t normal” “a parade through the streets” “people are singing” “people dressed in costumes following cars decorated and singing.” This sounds an awful lot like the other parties .. but with silly costumes poking fun at current events instead of flamenco attire. And no donuts.
Some links of interest:
- Gerry keeps his spanish-fiestas website up to date and full of information. I circle back to him frequently when planning trips to other cities and provinces.
- I love this collection of carnival posters. I am equally besotted with Feria de Abril posters from Sevilla as well as the Corrida del Toros annoucements for the bullfighting season.
- Wikipedia does a decent job of explaining Carnival in Cadiz, right down to the chirigotas – which one of my professors participated in!
- This site tells a story which I did not know — Carnaval was banned by the dictator Franco for 40 years! An interesting history of the festival(s).