February 20, 2009

French roots of Mardi Gras festivities and celebrations; join Mardi Gras around the world

Mardi Gras is around the corner, but not all of us can make it to New Orleans’ famous Mardi Gras parades and lavish celebrations. But don’t worry, Mardi Gras is not only celebrated in New Orleans, Louisiana, Mardi Gras carnivals, festivals and bashes will be happening (if they have not started already) this weekend all over the world.

Each of the countries, where it’s celebrated, have their own regional traditions, some of which were, actually, celebrated long before it made to the banks of America. In fact, the New Orleans festivities have strong roots in French celebrations before the arrival of Lent. Called "Carnival" in France, there are Mardi Gras traditions that predate New Orleans' festivities by centuries, and French pride themselves in having to offer the festivities in the “oldest”, and most authentic, way of them all.

In France, there are several Carnival celebrations that attract both locals and foreigners to celebrate. The most popular - the festive Nice Carnival, dating back to the Middle Ages - is a 10-day long celebration with daily parades, concerts, street theater and endless food and drink feasts. Another Mardi Gras festival in France is the Limoux Carnival, or Carnaval de Limoux, which beats the Nice Carnival in the length of its celebrations – it lasts several weeks each year and is best known for its unique masks, goudils, which are all different, but belong to the same family – Fecos. Limoux Carnival is neither a show nor a parade, it’s a pure unadulterated tradition, free of mock folklore.
Mardi Gras Around the World

Besides New Orleans and France, there are many other popular Mardi Gras Celebrations. They include Maslenitsa Russian Mardi Gras (see my story on “Russian Pancake Week”), Sydnei Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval, Rosenmontag’s Mardi Gras Carnival in Germany, Cadiz’s Papier Mache Mardi Gras in Spain, just among many other celebrations around the world.


In Brazil, Mardi Gras celebration is supposed to go on from the Saturday before Mardi Gras until Mardi Gras Day, but in some Brazilian cities the celebration lasts as long as eight days. Just like New Orleans, not many important things are decided in Brazil from New Year's Day to Mardi Gras Day because they are preparing for or celebrating Carnaval (Portuguese for Carnival).

Most Brazilian parades have a theme, or enredo, which could be political, historical, or a tribute to someone. The parades had to have a theme that related to Brazil until 1996. Some cities in Brazil do not have a street Carnaval but they might have an indoor ball.

Rio de Janeiro is well known, and a favorite place, for its carnaval celebrations around the world. More than 12 escola de sambas, or samba schools, compete in categories of costumes, dance, and percussion. Escola de sambas include the floats, costumes, dancers, and musicians. They are also known as samba schools because the first escola de samba practiced in a grade school. Rio parades are known as bandas, with more than 10,000 participants in each of the parades. The bandas go around most of Rio de Janeiro's neighborhoods, so if anyone wants to get a good night sleep that night is out of luck. Why would you sleep during a remember-all-your-life event anyway; I know many people who are willing to pay high airfares to come to Rio de Janiero for the Mardi Gras carnival from around the world.


Bolivia separates carnival celebrations: there are carnival parades for children and for adults. The children dress up in costumes and march on the streets, while the adults make traditional dance groups and dance on the streets. But what it’s known for is not the parades – is the “getting wet” tradition.Everyone gets to get wet from water balloons and water buckets. In the city of Oruru, the Carnival is the last ten days of the carnival season. People there participate in physical crafts and dancing, but their main event is a ceremonial parade that lasts for 20 hours and parades for almost three miles. More than 20,000 dancers are involved as well as thousands of musicians, attracting more than 400,000 people each year.
Caribbean Islands

If you happened to be on vacation in the Caribbean, don’t pack up and leave to attend the Mardi Gras celebrations at home. You don’t have to. There are multiple Carnival celebrations in the Caribbean islands. Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, happen on Lundi Gras and Mardi Gras. The heart of the celebration is the calypso, a style of Afro-Caribbean music, which originated in Trinidad and Tobago in the beginning of the 20th century. However, calypso’s popularity ceased over the years and recently, soca, a danceable form of calypso, has replaced original calypso.

Republic of Haiti

Haiti's kanaval lasts four days before Lent and millions of people visit Port-au-Prince to see the marching bands, raras or bandes-a-pieds. Families with children usually celebrate Mardi Gras in the afternoon to avoid any violence that usually happens in the evening during the karnaval song competitions between raras.

Venice, Italy

The Carnival in Venice, or Carnevale di Venezia, is often referred to as the most elaborate Carnival and lasts eight days before Lent each winter. It began in 1700s during glorious Venetian times, but has declined over the years when Venice lost its power and wealth to Dutch and British trades, and have completely ceased to exist when Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Venice in 1797.

Carnevale di Venezia is not just a Venetian tradition; similar festivities occur throughout the country, minus canals and gondola festivities. Locals and tourists flood the city for an orgy of pageants (just think St. Marks Square), commedia dell’arte, concerts (on streets and in house), masquerade balls and people’s display of self-made masks. The Shrove Tuesday marks the end of the carnival.

Many events are held in the canals including shows, concerts, dances, and water processions with masked rowers and decorated boats. Their official ending to the celebration is the ball, usually masquerade ball, held in St. Mark's Square. The masquerade aspect of Carnival goes as far as the Roman Empire creation: the Romans celebrated winter with a fertility festival where masks were worn by citizens and slaves alike.

Cadiz, Spain

In Spain there are Shrovetide, or Spanish Carnival, was the offspring of Christianity. Mardi Gras festivities in Spain are noteworthy for their brilliance and spectacular, especially in Cadiz, with its choruses, fancy-dress processions, jokes, disguises and float parades. In Cadiz the carnival procedures include a spirited procession, contests to choose the best singers and comedians, fancy dress balls, the selection of the queen of the festivities and fireworks. The main attraction is the procession which is held the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

Spaniards in Cadiz celebrate Mardi Gras with papier mache figures and satirical songs, taken and adopted from Venice's celebrations and customs. While the carnival was cancelled during the Spanish Civil War in most parts of the country, it has always stayed in Cadiz with several celebrations starting a week before Mardi Gras and ending a week after Mardi Gras. Children around the country are allowed to wear costumes and fancy dresses to schools.

Barcelona's Carnival, however, does not have a main parade activity; rather, each district of the city holds its own parade. But they compensate it with the Barcelona-Sitges International Antique Car Rally, which is held about the same time with Mardi Gras. The festival consists of covering the route in cars built not later than 1920. The participants dress up in costumes of the period. Not only do Spanish automobile clubs take part in the rally, but those from France and Andorra as well.

Vilanova i la Geltrú and Sitges hold very big Carnivals and very wild parties. The floats and processions are well worth a visit. Santa Cruz de Tenerife Mardi Gras celebrations feature replicas of the original carnival celebrations, consisting of parades with floats and "murgas" or comic bands and the singing of the island songs through the streets, together with many folklore contests. The beginning of Lent, and therefore the end of the celebrations, is signified by the burial of a sardine.

Dusseldorf, Germany

Germany calls their Carnival fasching and the largest parade is in Dusseldorf, Rosenmontag. Rosenmontag, or Rose Monday, is the climax of the Karneval season in Germany. The 'rose' part of 'Rose Monday' has nothing to do with the flower; Rose in Latin means ‘wild,' and this is exactly how people are expected to get during the carnival – wild.

Each year, the carnival has a theme; for example, in 2004 a theme was “What Happens, Happens.” Rosenmontag is on Lundi Gras and more than 500,000 people attend; and of course – lots of beer.

Enjoy Mardi Gras wherever you are!

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