History of Carnival
Time to Let Loose!
Once Christmas season is officially over in the Caribbean, it's time to dig out your dancing shoes and start thinking about Carnival, the hedonistic celebration that culminates on Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, the day before Lent begins.
If you are planning a trip to the Caribbean in February or March, when Fat Tuesday falls depending on the year, you can catch this raucous celebration that's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
January St. Kitts, St. Croix
February Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Martinique
April St .Thomas (U.S. Virgin Islands), Jamaica, St. Martin
May Cayman Islands
July St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
August Tortola, British Virgin Islands
Trinidad, the birthplace of Carnival in the Caribbean, is still the biggest and wildest party, but there are many other islands where you can experience Carnival almost year-round.
Carnival in the Caribbean has a complicated origin. 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 "farewell to flesh" translation, while possibly fabricated, is said to be emblematic of the sensuous abandon that came to define the Caribbean celebration of the holiday.
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 included traditions from all ethnic groups. 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, dressing in masquerade, music, and dancing, remain central to Carnival celebrations, whether it be at an elaborate French ball or steel drums in the streets, with costumes, masks, feathers, headdresses, dancing, music, and drums all part of the scene, along with raucous behavior.