Date varies. Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) falls on February 21, 2012


Scores of cities from Rio to Cologne host their own Carnival festivities during the week before Lent, but not many can boast a party that dates back to 1268.

In those days, the Venice Carnevale was frowned upon by the local authorities and the Church. The debauchery and gluttony of the celebration recalled ancient pagan rites that flew in the face of the austerity of the 40-day Lent.

The Carnival before Lent is kind of like the “Boycott Gas for a Day” movement. It takes the punch out of not consuming something for a day if you consume twice as much the day before.

But don’t tell this to the Venetians. The Carnevale is a symbol of the city. And the symbol of Carnevale is the mask. Celebrants don their “masquerade” masks and costumes for both outdoor and indoor celebrations. During Carnevale neighbors become strangers and strangers become friends.

Despite being the biggest and most famous Carnival celebration in all Europe, the current incarnation of Carnevale is only a few decades old. The festival has been banned numerous times by the authorities during its 800-year history, notably in 1797 when Napoleon conquered the Venetian Republic, and more recently by dictator Benito Mussolini in the 1930s.

The Venice Carnevale differs from its counterparts because Venice lacks the streets required for the processions which are the main event of other celebrations. But Venice more than makes up for it with indoor banquets and masquerades and outdoor parties.

“…the whole town was transformed into a vast theatre, full of music, dance and festivities. The various ‘campi’ or small squares throughout the town were traditionally used to stage various events, as they still are today.”

Melanie K. Smith, Issues in Cultural Tourism Studies

Venice Beach Mardi Gras
Venice Beach Mardi Gras

Every Day’s a Holiday didn’t have the resources to make it to Venice or Mardi Gras this year, but we did attend the next best thing: the Venice Beach Mardi Gras in California, which as it falls on Saturday, is technically a Samedi Gras.

The word carnival — literally “farewell to the flesh” — refers to the period before Lent during which Catholics could still eat meat. “Carnival” has since come to mean any large communal party with rides and cotton candy. So the term “Mardi Gras” (Fat Tuesday — the day before Ash Wednesday) has been mistakenly used to refer to all the festivities leading up to the big day itself.

Saturday’s Venice Beach Mardi Gras featured locals in outlandish costumes, loud musicians, ecstatic crowds of bewildered tourists, and merry-making all around.

So really it was indistinguishable from any other day at Venice Beach.

The Bushman of Venice Beach
The Bushman of Venice Beach

I spoke with “The Bushman”, a Liberian who’s been on the boardwalk for ten years, and who shouted at passersby in his distinct African accent the same question many of us have been asking this Carnival season:

“Where’s my stimulus package!”

Judging by the amount of bills tourists tossed his way…he may have entered a new tax bracket.

See you in Venice!

Venice Beach Mardi Gras
Venice Beach Mardi Gras
Venice Beach Mardi Gras
Venice Beach Mardi Gras
Venice Beach Mardi Gras
Venice Beach Mardi Gras
Venice Beach mural
Venice Beach apartment building
Venice Beach apartment building

Venice Beach: California Carnivale

Originally posted Feb. 23, 2009

Mardi Gras

February 21, 2012

[published Feb. 5, 2008]

Mardi Gras, as I’m sure you’re well aware, is first and foremost a devout religious ceremony, marking the last day in the Catholic liturgical calendar that observing Christians can wear beads, eat pancakes and show their boobs.

“Fat Tuesday” (or to the AMA: “Obese Tuesday”) marks the finale of the carnival season. The whole carnival season itself is called, surprisingly, “Carnival,” which spans from Twelfth Night (Epiphany) until the day before Ash Wednesday.

This year’s Mardi Gras is the earliest Mardi Gras in 25 years. But if you’re worried about the abbreviated Carnival season, fear not. The next time Fat Tuesday will fall as early as February 5 is 2160.

What’s changed about Carnival since Katrina? Not the popularity. After Katrina, visitors had dropped from 1 million to 360,000 in 2006. That number skyrocketed to 800,000 in 2007, and crowds this year are estimated to have surpassed the one million mark.

What else has increased? According to locals, the violence. As of Monday there were 5 shootings that injured 9 people, including one incident where a bullet fired in a scuffle outside the Holiday Inn Express pierced the wall of the hotel and struck a bystander in the head.

This year was celebrated as the 40th anniversary of Bacchus, the original “superkrewe.” Superkrewes like Bacchus and Endymion are credited with changing the face of Carnival, starting in the late 1960s. They invited international celebrities as guests of honor to the parades; they introduced larger, more extravagant floats and unprecedented amounts of booty–the bead and throw kind, not the Girls Gone Wild.

The increase in the size of the Krewes (Endymion alone has 2000 riders, 39 floats and 27 marching bands) and the celebration allowed out-of-towners more participation at Carnival. Still, long-time Orleanians note that the new larger scope of Carnival has compromised the communal feel the celebration once held.

Each year krewes select a king and queen for their parade and ball. Tradition dictates that the king is an older, distinguished member of the social club. A group of eligible young women are served a special King Cake with one bean (or plastic baby) baked inside. She who finds the lucky bean in her cake becomes the new Queen, provided she hasn’t choked to death.

King Cake

(King Cake)

Mardi Gras and Carnival’s roots go back to the spring festivals of ancient Greece and Rome, notably Lupercalia, which took place in February.

“Carnival” means “farewell to the flesh.” A great, succinct history of Carnival’s evolution is at:

A Brief History of Mardi Gras


Mardi Gras Multimedia

Arthur Hardy’s History of Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras History

2006 NY Times article: No Cinderella Story, No Ball, No Black Debutante

Krewe Index

Carnival – Trinidad

March 7-8, 2011

February 20-21, 2012

Rarely has so much joy emanated from such a small dot on the globe, and reverberated with as much noise as Carnival.

Trinidad and Tobago is the 172nd smallest country in the world, but per capita, it’s party spot #1.

In the 1770s Trinidad had only a few thousand inhabitants, mostly Amerindians; it was one of the most underpopulated regions of Spain’s New World colonies. Spain opened immigration up to French colonists in the West Indies, who were somewhat miffed at the British takeover of the Caribbean. And to sweeten the deal, Spain included land grants for these emigrants and their slaves–provided they were Catholic and swore allegiance to the Spanish King. By the time the British took over the island in 1798—ending 300 years of Spanish rule—the French plantocracy was the dominant group. The island boasted sizable populations of West Africans, Spanish, and Amerindians as well, and was home to pirates, planters, slaves and soldiers alike.

map of Trinidad and Tobago

The French celebrated fetes champêtre (garden parties) and bals masque (masquerade balls), borrowing some traditions from their homeland and picking others from the seemingly exotic rituals of their slaves. One highlights of these festivities was a canboulay ceremony, in which “landowners dressed up as negres jardins (garden slaves) and imitated the processions that occurred whenever a sugar cane field caught fire.” (NY Times, Dec. 28, 1986)

As a possession of the United Kingdom, slavery was outlawed in 1833 with the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act. Now it was the former slaves’ time to celebrate, and that they did, openly celebrating West African rhythms and rituals and mixing them with those of their former owners.

Grisso notes that the Carnival bears resemblance to the African Egungun festival, where families dressed in colors, in bands, to honor their ancestors. And while most European festivals transpired indoors, African communities celebrated in the great wide open. Grisso theorizes that the true origin of Carnival may have been the ancient Egyptian festivals, like the one Herodotus describes, in honor of the god Artemis…

Every baris [barge] carrying them there overflows with people, a huge crowd of them, men and women together. Some of the women have clappers, while some of the men have pipes which they play throughout their voyage. The rest of the men and women sign and clap their hands. When in the course of their journey they reach a community–not the city of their destination, but somewhere else–they steer the bareis close to the bank. Some of the women carry on doing what I have already described them as doing, but others shout out scornful remarks to the women in the town, or dance, or stand and pull up their clothes to expose themselves…more wine is consumed during this festival than throughout the whole of the rest of the year. According to the local inhabitants, up to 700,000 men and women, excluding children, come together for the festival.

Herodotus states, “the Egyptians were the first people in the world to hold general festive assemblies, and religious processions and parades, and the Greeks learnt from the Egyptians.”

The tradition was imported by the Romans, and through Rome to France. And it may be the Carnival of Trinidad was the reuniting of the Carnival traditions, filtered through two cultures on two separate continents over two-thousand years, and then merged together for the first time on a tiny island called Trinidad.

Carnival, Port of Spain, Trinidad
Carnival, Port of Spain, Trinidad

However, the British were not quite the party people that the French were. They banned the use of drums, fearing its pounding resulted in non-Victorian outcomes. The inhabitants merely used their creativity and banged on other objects, such as tins. Today the steel drum is universally recognized as a defining symbol of the Caribbean and of Carnivals world-wide.

Eventually the spirit of Carnival migrated eastward. London’s Notting Hill Carnival is the largest public event in the British capitol.

Looking Ahead to Carnival: Trinidad

Carnival in Trinidad: Evolution and Symbolic Meaning

The History of Herodotus: Book 2

The African and Spiritual Origins of Carnival

History is Made at Night: Politics of Dancing and Musicking – Trinidad Carnival

Notting Hill Carnival

Summer Bank Holiday Weekend
August 28-29, 2011

The word “carnival” comes from the Latin carne vale meaning “farewell to the flesh”. It originally referred to festivals that fell just before Lent, when eating meat was forbidden. Famous pre-lenten carnivals include Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans, Nice, and Trinidad.

Inspired by the world-famous Trinidad Carnival, Notting Hill takes place in August, because you’d have to be nuts to wear a thong in England in February.

The ‘Mother of Notting Hill Carnival’ is Claudia Jones, a native of Trinidad who spent almost her entire life on three vastly different islands: Trinidad, Manhattan, and England.

Born in Trinidad in 1915, Jones immigrated to Harlem, New York with her family at age 7. As a teen, she took part in a protest against the trial and prosecution of the Scottsboro Nine, and she spent much of the next 20 years fighting the inequalities of the U.S. justice system. She became a vocal supporter of the Communist League and a prominent writer for the Daily Worker.

Claudia Jones

As a reward for her outspokenness, Jones was arrested in 1948 on immigration charges and nearly deported, despite having lived in the U.S. for 26 years. She was arrested a few years later, along with other Communist Party leaders, for supposedly violating of the Smith Act during the height of the McCarthy era frenzy. While in prison the 40 year-old Jones suffered a heart attack. This and a bout of tuberculosis she contracted in her youth would plague her health for her remaining years.

In October 1955 she was deported from the U.S., and was granted asylum in what would be her final island: England.

As temperatures rose in Notting Hill in August 1958, the city erupted in race riots, in which hundreds of whites attacked the neighborhood’s West Indian residents. In addition to speaking out against the riots, Jones decided to create an event that would promote racial harmony while celebrating the music and talent of England’s West Indian heritage. This forerunner of the Carnival was held indoors in its first years, starting in 1959.

Unfortunately Jones wouldn’t live to see the first official Notting Hill Carnival and street festival in 1965. She died on Christmas Eve, 1964.

Today the Notting Hill Carnival is London’s largest annual public event, and at over a million people, it’s one of the largest street festivals in the world.

Jones would probably be delighted to know that an estimated 1.5 million people of all faiths and races attended the 2000 Notting Hill Carnival—more than the entire population of her homeland of Trinidad.

Caludia Jones: A Life of Struggle

Notting Hill Diary

Notting Hill Carnival

Carnival – Grenada

August 8-9, 2011

Key ingredients:

Take a warm August Caribbean day.

Add Music: Calypso, Steel drums, Soca, and other traditional rhythms.

Mix with bright, colorfully-costumed dancers and musicians atop or around decorated floats

And set amid thousands of spectators dancing along the procession route.

You have yourself Carnival.

Serves more than you can imagine.

Carnival in Trinidad (March)
Carnival in Trinidad (March)

Though many locales celebrate before Ash Wednesday, such as Haiti, Martinique and Trinidad and Tobago, others celebrate in August, including Antigua and Barbados, Grenada, and, of course, Notting Hill. Today Grenada celebrates Carnival.

The festival has its roots in the synthesis of French-Catholic and West African cultures in the Caribbean in the 16th though 19th centuries.

Traditions include the crowning of a Calypso King or Monarch, Battle of the Steel Bands (Panorama) and J’Ouvert–the wild parade of the festival occurring from the middle of the night till just before dawn.