Carnival & Cultural Roots

Roots of Carnival 
Carnival in the Caribbean has a complicated birthright: It’s tied to colonialism, religious conversion, and ultimately freedom and celebration. The festival originated with Italian Catholics in Europe, and it later spread to the French and Spanish, who brought the pre-Lenten tradition with them when they settled (and brought slaves to) Trinidad, Dominica, Haiti, Martinique, and other Caribbean islands.

The word “Carnival” itself is thought to mean “farewell to meat” or “farewell to flesh,” the former referencing the Catholic practice of abstaining from red meat from Ash Wednesday until Easter. The latter explanation, while possibly apocryphal, is said to be emblematic of the sensuous abandon that came to define the Caribbean celebration of the holiday.

Guadeloupe winter carnival, Pointe-à-Pitre parade. A group of young performers. Foreground: woman wearing traditional carnival outfit (photo reportage ).

Carnival is celebrated in the month of February across parts of Europe, the Caribbean, and South America. A Catholic tradition brought to the colonies by the Spanish, French, and Portuguese since the 1500s, Carnival has become increasingly fused with the traditions practiced by African slaves and their descendants. 

Historians say they believe the first “modern” Caribbean Carnival originated in Trinidad and Tobago in the late 18th century when a flood of French settlers brought the Fat Tuesday masquerade party tradition with them to the island, although Fat Tuesday celebrations were almost certainly taking place at least a century before that.

By the beginning of the 18th century, there were already a large number of free blacks in Trinidad mixed with French immigrants, earlier Spanish settlers, and British nationals (the island came under British control in 1797). This resulted in Carnival’s transformation from an implanted European celebration to a more heterogeneous cultural froth that includes traditions from all ethnic groups contributing to the celebration. With the end of slavery in 1834, the now completely free populace could outwardly celebrate their native culture and their emancipation through dress, music, and dancing.

These three elements remain central to Carnival celebrations. It happens at elaborate balls (the European tradition) and in the streets (the African tradition), with costumes, masks, feathers, headdresses, dancing, music, steel bands, and drums all part of the scene, along with raucous behavior.

The African Roots of Carnival

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If there’s one party to top them all, it’s definitely Carnival. The public celebration brings the custom of thousands of people gathering on the streets for what feels like endless days of boozing, dancing, and singing. Where drink, mask, and costume is plenty, regardless of place, name, or shape, Carnival is an event that interrupts the mundanity of daily life by its full embodiment of music and fantasy.

Chihongo face mask, Chokwe peoples, late 19th–early 20th century, Dallas Museum of Art , African Collection Fund. Retrieved from All Art News.



Many of the rhythms and colorful costumes, masks, and feathers in a Rio Carnival can be traced to African festivals celebrated once upon a time, and even in some places today. mainly from West African traditions =, South America especially Brasil has deep roots with Yoruba group of people.

It’s all been traced the Carnival-esque roots in the Caribbean and South America, where its most African influence is most visible.

Parades, Masks & Feathers 

Originating from European religious events in celebrations of harvest, Carnival street parades were traditionally a way to honor the spirits or ancestors. In his essay on the origins of Dominican Carnival, anthropologist Lynne Guitar argues that it was the custom of many places in Africa for people to walk around the village, singing, dancing, and wearing carefully crafted masks and colorful costumes in purpose of bringing good luck. These parades were meant to scare away the spirits of angry dead relatives, thus it’s no surprise that symbols of death are common in many Carnival street-parades today.

 Junkanoo – male dancer in the Bahamas

If there’s one aspect of Carnival recognizable worldwide, it’s the use of masks and feathers. In Europe, masks are used to hide a person’s identity whereas in the African tradition, masks take on an entirely different meaning: to bring to life some spirit. The colorful feathers used to decorate masks in major carnival regions of Brazil, Peru, and Trinidad and Tobago can be traced to some practices in Igbo, Yoruba, Fon, Ewe, Kongo, and Bantu traditions. Feathers and other natural objects were believed to lend certain spiritual strengths to the wearer. Perhaps this explains the vibrant, hypnotic energy of Caribbean and South American carnivals in comparison to celebrations in the rest of the world.

The Calabar Carnival in Southern Nigeria is now becoming a major tourist destination, as the carnival grows every year. Mixing in all the Latin and Caribbean festivals and carnival flavours.  Dubbed Africa’s biggest street party, thousands of costumed revelers dance along the 12 km Carnival route every year, showing the history and cultures which shine through but always with a nod and libations in honor of the ancestors.


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