Carnival has always been a festival of mysteries. Marked by a sense of finality, it celebrates the end of one season and the beginning of another, providing a release before a period of grief and solemnity—at least in the Christian tradition.
The celebration’s name is likely derived from the medieval Latin phrases carnem levare and carnelevarium, which refer to the removal of meat. In Catholicism, Carnival precedes a 40-day period of fasting known as Lent. Shrove Tuesday, also known as Mardi Gras, marks not only the last day of Carnival but also the last day observants can eat meat and enjoy other indulgences before Lent.
Though Carnival is widely associated with Christianity, its origins may actually predate that religion. Some sources trace Carnival back to ancient Rome’s Saturnalia festivals, celebrated around mid-December in honor of the god Saturn, father of Jupiter. Others suggest it started out in ancient Egypt. Either way, calling Carnival a tradition with exclusively Western or Christian roots is likely too limiting. Today, the winter festival is celebrated in more than 50 countries around the world, including Brazil, Italy, Switzerland, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United States.
Carnival during the medieval era
During the Middle Ages, the Church combined the pagan and Christian strains of Carnival into something altogether different. Beginning in the mid-12th century, the reigning pope traveled on horseback to Monte Testaccio, an incline in Rome built mainly out of discarded amphorae fragments, to preside over the ludus carnevalarii, a celebration that pitted noble families against each other in duels, jousting, bullfights and other competitions. In one game, carts of live pigs were thrown from the top of the hill, leaving the townspeople below clamoring to catch the meat.
Shortly after Pope Paul II assumed leadership of the Church in 1464, he created the Renaissance Carnival, which hearkened back to Rome’s ancient traditions. Over eight days during Carnival season, the pope organized races between members of the same animal species, like buffaloes and donkeys, as well as assorted groups of people, such as children and the elderly. The Via Lata became the site of these games, eventually inspiring the street’s current name, Via del Corso, which stems from the Italian word for “race.”
On the final night of the Carnival season, Shrove Tuesday, locals stormed the Via del Corso, wearing masks and holding candles as part of a procession called the Festa dei Moccoletti. The raucous event was an excuse to truly let loose, often in a violent way. According to the Roman tourism department’s website, participants screamed, “Death to anyone who is not carrying a candle!” They also attempted to snuff out others’ lights while maintaining their own.
Rome is no longer the center of Carnival celebrations, but the festival has taken on additional layers of meaning the world over. Individual countries have tweaked the holiday to fit their customs and uses, sometimes socially, sometimes politically and sometimes purely for enjoyment. As the pre-Lenten season draws to a close in 2024, learn about five different Carnival traditions from around the globe that represent the festival’s historical breadth.
Venice supplanted Rome as the main site of Italian Carnival festivities by the 18th century. Like many later Carnival celebrations, Venice’s affairs were marked by the widespread use of masks, which created a temporary feeling of equality between the ruling class and the lower classes. The six-week festival served as a “placebo against the bad moods and tensions that were often generated within the poorer classes toward the [political] system,” according to Venice’s official tourist guide.
It was Giacomo Casanova, an adventurer and author born in Venice in 1725, who perhaps brought the most attention to the city’s celebrations. His autobiography, History of My Life, chronicled not only his sexual conquests but also the character of his home state, where one’s image carried social currency.
“Casanova’s writings suggest that significant emphasis was placed solely on appearance and that being seen, as opposed to exchanging ideas, was often the primary objective of appearing in public,” wrote scholar Nicola Vinovrški in a 2019 paper. “Though dwindling in economic and political power, Venice was still a thriving city during his lifetime. Known throughout Europe for its Carnival, associated with gaiety and pleasure, it was a city with numerous public spaces where revelers could see and be seen.”
The masked traditions of Carnival were a way of turning this emphasis on public image on its head. Participants were seen but not seen, effectively hiding in literal broad daylight. One of the most popular traditional costumes was the bauta, which consisted of a full mask, a cape that covered the head and shoulders, and a tricorn or cocked hat. The mask also concealed the mouth in such a way that it changed the speaker’s voice. Another mask, the French moretta, was beloved by Venetian women. Covered in dark velvet, it was kept in place by a small button held between the teeth, leaving the wearer unable to speak.
In 1797, the Republic of Venice came under Austrian rule as part an agreement between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Habsburg dynasty. The Austrians banned both Carnival and mask-wearing, and the tradition only survived thanks to artists on the Venetian islands of Burano and Murano. Almost 150 years later, Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime upheld the prohibition, ensuring that Venice could not celebrate Carnival. But a resurgence in the 1970s led to the celebrations that continue today.
When Rio de Janeiro brought back its Carnival in 2023, after two years of cancellations prompted by Covid-19, the event made headlines around the world, testifying to just how much of a phenomenon it is. Widely acclaimed as the world’s biggest Carnival, the five-day celebration draws some two million revelers each day. Celebrants take to the streets, and clubs known as samba schools parade through the city during performances.
The festival’s roots lie in the Portuguese colonization of Brazil. Though the Portuguese likely imported a tradition with the same Christian and ancient roots as Rome’s Carnival, it was the Indigenous culture of Brazil, as well as that of the enslaved African people brought to the colony by the Portuguese, that made the celebration what it is today. This influence is evident in Rio Carnival’s samba music, feathered costumes and dance styles.
“By the beginning of the 20th century, … Carnival found a strategic place in the delineation of culture and Brazilian national identity,” wrote sociologist Edson Farias for ReVista magazine in 2014. “Its ritual practices were bound up with the passionate features etched into the country and its people: its sensual tropical style and fondness for playful behavior and an irreverent joyousness.”
Trinidad and Tobago Carnival
Much like Rio Carnival, Trinidad and Tobago’s festival was initially brought over by European colonists, but it quickly took on a life of its own, particularly among the islands’ African and Indigenous populations.
One of the hallmarks of Trinidad and Tobago’s early Carnival celebrations was Cannes Brûlées, the ceremonial act of burning sugar cane by enslaved Africans. The ritual served as a form of resistance against both the practice of slavery and, more generally, capitalism, writes Savita Maharaj, a literary scholar at Brandeis University, for the Early Caribbean Digital Archive. The celebration also involved traditional song and dance, like stick-fighting. But the practice of burning sugar cane became so controversial that a British royal commission attempted to outlaw it in 1881, sparking the Canboulay riots. Faced with new restrictions, the islands’ free Black residents, who’d been emancipated from slavery in 1838, adapted their celebrations, replacing stick-fighting with improvised bamboo instruments and later steel pan drums.
“By banning Cannes Brûlées, [the British] were trying to silence [formerly] enslaved people,” Maharaj tells Smithsonian magazine. “But in that silencing, they failed, because Carnival is both culture and resistance.”
While much of the textual evidence for Trinidad and Tobago’s historic Carnival celebrations comes from the records of colonizers, Maharaj notes that it is important to place the islands’ festival in the context of Caribbean culture.
“Instead of referencing or comparing Carnival to European culture, the Caribbean should be seen as a cultural center that stands on its own,” the scholar writes for the archive. “We cannot trust the perspective Westerners … write from because of their inclination to compare Carnival to the only thing they know—European culture. How would the perspective change if the Caribbean was viewed as the place of cultural origin?”
Maharaj, who is of Trinidadian heritage herself, says she sees Carnival’s revolutionary effects as simply accumulating over the decades.
“Acts of resistance are always effective,” she tells Smithsonian. “I’m thinking of my grandmother and her grandmother and her mother’s mother. Resistance was inherited, and it builds over time. I don’t think big acts of resistance can always happen. Small acts build up to bigger acts, and maintaining culture is a huge act of resistance.”
Mardi Gras New Orleans
In the U.S., the most popular Carnival celebration is Mardi Gras, which is traditionally held in New Orleans. Whether the first Mardi Gras in the country was held in New Orleans or Mobile, Alabama, is up for debate, but the Louisiana State Museum suggests that French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville introduced the tradition to America in 1699, when he celebrated Shrove Tuesday at a site some 60 miles away from what is now New Orleans. In the early 18th century, New Orleanians celebrated Mardi Gras with masked balls and parades, but the Spanish occupation of the city led to a multi-decade lull in the festivities. The Spanish regulated the celebrations, perhaps wanting to put an end to any disorderliness.
The first Mardi Gras “krewe” took to the streets in 1857, when the Mistick Krewe of Comus, “a group of New Orleans businessmen, … decided to invent a more civilized celebration” after years of “rowdy street parties,” according to NOLA.com. A few decades later, Black locals excluded from mainstream Carnival celebrations established a separate tradition of dressing up as Native Americans, perhaps in tribute to the Indigenous people who'd helped them escape from slavery. Today, New Orleans’ festivities include friendly competitions between “tribes” of Mardi Gras Indians; balls presided over by kings, queens and royal courts; plenty of beads tossed to jubilant crowds; and a small plastic baby hidden in a slice of king cake.
Quebec Winter Carnival
Canada’s oldest winter festival, first held in Quebec City in 1894, was developed by Quebec Daily Telegraph owner Frank Carrel as a way to “brighten up dark winter days and attract tourists,” per the local government of Quebec. The celebration featured an ice palace, a masquerade, fireworks and sporting competitions. The Quebec Winter Carnival continued successfully for years, with events ranging from a canoe race across the St. Lawrence River to parade floats. But the tumultuous first half of the 20th century, including the Great Depression and two World Wars, stopped the festival from becoming a regular event.
In 1954, the festival was officially brought back to help the economy and bolster tourism. Since then, it has taken place every winter. The carnival is known in part for its mascot, Bonhomme, a snowman with a red hat, black buttons and the characteristic French Canadian ceinture fléchée, a type of sash.