All About Caribbean Carnivals – Part 1

By Moraima Capellán Pichardo

caribbean carnival - guide - what to expect

What comes to mind when you hear the words Caribbean Carnival? Probably parties, costumes and a general great time.  Beyond a colorful party, Caribbean Carnivals have a strong cultural history and influences that range from country to country.  Here’s what you should know if you book your stay in the Caribbean during Carnival season: 

Diverse history 

Carnival celebrations had a complicated start. They might be known as joyful parties but their inception is a combination of colonialism, enslavement and religious conversion.  Carnival translates to “farewell to meat”, originating from a Catholic tradition of giving up meat during Lent and brought over by European colonizers.

Modern iterations are a blend of Christian traditions and the small creative freedoms that African slaves were able to find in an oppressive state. Carnivals represent a time to let loose, release stress and celebrate liberty. 

Fun Fact: As the Caribbean diaspora has spread throughout the world, so have Caribbean carnivals. The city of Toronto boasts a massive carnival celebration, called Caribana due to its Caribbean immigrant population.

caribbean carnivals celebrationn

Trinidad & Tobago

There seems to be a conflict between historians who claim that the oldest Carnival was started in Trinidad & Tobago and those who claim that it is actually from the Dominican Republic. We’ll talk more about the Dominican Carnaval in part 2 of this series but we can settle this debate here and now. Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago dates back to the 18th century, while the Dominican carnival in La Vega goes all the way back to the 16th century.  

It might not be the oldest carnival but it is certainly one of the largest and most iconic.  The festivities start after Christmas celebrations and culminate on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. The days are filled with events and competitions. Most notably, participants walk the streets in traditional and elaborate costumes—visitors can join in, if they book and purchase their costumes in advance!

 

Jamaica

Beginning in February all the way until May, the festivities including beach parties, marches and beautiful costumes, occur in the major resort areas of Kingston and Ocho Rios. Rum is a big part of the culture of this carnival and since Jamaica is the home of Reggae, expect amazing concerts.

 

Puerto Rico

Celebrated in the city of Ponce, the Puerto Rican carnival lasts a week culminating on Fat Tuesday (day before Ash Wednesday). The Grand Parade features costumes, dancers and lots of music. Vejigantes, or horned demons are similar to the Dominican, Diablo Cojuelos, even carrying cow bladder balloons to hit spectators.

 

The Bahamas

Known as Junkanoo, this celebration occurs right after December 26th until New Years Day. Although there is debate about it’s true origins, the modern carnival often has a theme and is known for the musical parades down the streets of downtown Nassau.  Like many Caribbean carnivals, the costumes and dances take months to prepare and are a sense of pride to natives.

 

While these are just a few highlights, most Caribbean countries have a carnival or carnival-like celebration. Each country and festivity offers a range of cultural value immensely important to the region. Have you ever attended carnival? The energy is like no other party you will ever attend. 

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