Linda Taylor Concalves puts on her dancing shoes as the annual Carnival celebrations roll round. If you’ve not witnessed it before, plan to be there; if you have, then you’ll certainly be ready to party again.
In Pagan times, carnival celebrations marked the transition between winter’s end and spring, with rituals of fertility and the quest for abundance to be reaped in the ‘new’ year. Ancient Romans also celebrated Saturalia, expressing much the same desires for regeneration and natural balance.
Much later, the followers of the Catholic church in Italy began the tradition of holding a wild costume festival right before the first day of Lent. Carnevale means ‘to put away the meat’ and the celebrations focused on food, as it was the last opportunity to indulge before the 40 days of Lent – strict diet started on Ash Wednesday.
The tradition, and the partying that went with it, spread to Spain, Portugal and France and was then adopted by North America, The Caribbean and South America during the Empire-building 15th and 16th centuries.
Anywhere the colonising nations were involved in slavery, African traditions had an enormous influence on Carnival. Parading through villages in costumes and masks was believed to bring good fortune, and Carnival traditions also borrow from the African tradition of putting together natural objects – bones, grasses, beads and shells – to create a sculpture, a mask, or costume.
Feathers were frequently used by Africans in their motherland on headdresses and African dance and music traditions transformed the early carnival celebrations in the Americas, as African drum rhythms, large puppets, stick fighters, and stilt dancers began to make their appearances in the carnival festivities.
Brazil, once a Portuguese colony, and Mardi Gras in Louisiana, are two of the world’s most famous Carnivals. While Portugal is responsible for introducing the concept to Brazil, over the years the latter has made it very much her own, especially in Rio de Janeiro, with its extravaganza of colour, lights, samba dancers, dazzling costumes, and partying on the streets. And what are now considered as trademarks of the Rio celebrations feature heavily in the Portuguese merry-making.
Here, for the three days leading up to Ash Wednesday, this year 3-5 March, most of Portugal’s major cities will host parades and pageants with fl oats, blasting music, costumes and masks, worn not only by those taking part, but by on-lookers, too, swept up in the atmosphere.
Possibly the oldest and certainly the most famous celebration is held in Loulé. According to some afi cionados it is Loulé – not Lisbon or Porto, but little Loulé – that introduced Carnival to Rio.
The locals turn out in force and visitors come from far and wide, often heading fi rst for the pop-up costume-hire shops and stalls to buy the perfect prop and sparkliest mask. The streets are lined with party-goers, from babes-in-arms to great grandparents with zimmer frames; bars and restaurants are packed – especially those, like Avenida Velha which is upstairs and aff ords diners by the window an up-close view of the fl oats below.
The procession up the main Avenida in the centre of town, starts at 3pm each day and runs for a couple of hours. The atmosphere is electric, the noise is overwhelming, and the laughter can be heard blocks away. Participants in the parades rehearse, make costumes and build fl oats for many months preceding the festivities and they are set on having the most fun possible, throwing streamers and sweets into the crowds, jigging and jogging to the beat. The dancing is a bit of a free for all, and that’s what adds to the fun. And each year brings a new theme – often with blatant digs at prominent political fi gures – and leafl ets are handed out that explain who and why and what to expect.
You have to be there to see it, but don’t go smart… the occasional throwing of water balloons and even fresh eggs, have become an accepted part of the action, especially when kids are doing the throwing. The procession may be over by 5.30 but the partying continues long into the evening.