The Unique History and Excitement of Carnival
Nearly everyone has heard of Carnival, and for a good reason. It is one of the biggest celebrations in the world – and the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is the largest of these celebrations. Thousands of people descend on the city every year. Samba schools (more on them later) gather together and perform throughout the event, and the city is filled with colors, noise and costumes. Carnival is one of the most eye-catching displays in all the world.
From Belize to Russia the Christian world erupts in celebration at the onset of Lent. The parades, masks, and dancing are some of the most recognizable of these events, but the real celebration of Carnival takes many forms all over the world. We are going to explore the customs and traditions that have led to the Brazilian Carnival in Rio becoming the renowned spectacle that it is today.
Why is Carnival Celebrated?
I’m going to lay down some Rio carnival facts first. You can trace the origins of the Rio carnival history back to the Ancient Greek celebration of Dionysus. After the Christianization of the Romans, many of these celebrations and holidays were adopted into the Christian sphere. Over time the commemoration of the Greek god of wine and fertility evolved into the Christian celebration of the oncoming of Lent.
To understand the holiday’s celebration of food and consumption, you must understand the times with which the originators lived. Both the ancient Greeks and early Christians had to store food for winter, and this food had to last until the spring. This festival takes place at the end of winter, when food could no longer be easily preserved or was running low, yet before the new harvests were to arrive.
The fete was traditionally regarded as the common man’s last chance to eat well for the next couple months – hence the celebratory atmosphere. All the food bound to rot had to go, so why not enjoy the consumption? The Christian church eventually tried to curb many of sexual traditions of the celebration but with varying results.
Most of the popular traditions that survived, the ones involving masks, parades and costumes, have their roots in medieval Italy. From Italy, it spread to the rest of Europe. Spain and Portugal then brought it to South America. It is this tradition that led to the modern Rio Carnival.
Brazil Carnival Costumes
The costumes of carnival, especially in Rio, have evolved significantly over the years. Obviously, the renaissance dress of the Venetians and Italians had their own magnificent flare when compared to the more puritan dress of the later colonial practitioners in Brazil.
The modern dress has continued with the times, and the more iconic outfits of the Rio Carnival clearly take inspiration from traditional South American dress rather than the cultural roots of the celebration itself. Large feathered headdresses and skimpy outfits make the modern Carnival one of the most dashing and eye-catching of any generations.
Masks have been a staple of these celebrations. Originally used to allow the nobility and common man alike to indulge themselves without fear of social scorn, the masks often now play the same role. The Brazil Carnival masks allow people to take on a new identity and invest themselves fully into the debauchery of this ironically religious holiday.
To understand the parade in Rio, you must understand Rio Carnival dancers, and the art of Samba. Although I can’t do justice to the level of involvement of Samba in the day to day lives of the neighborhoods with which they inhabit, suffice to say they are dance schools that form the glue that holds hundreds of Brazilian communities together. They hold dozens of events throughout the year, all in a build up to the main spectacle – the Carnival parade culminating in the show in the Sambadrome.
If you travel down to Rio to witness the Carnival parade, you will be dazzled by row after row of elaborately dressed dancers and floats. The show has grown so large over recent decades that it now takes place over two days. Each Samba school follows a particular template and works within it to create their unique show with its own mood that usually tells a story.
If you Want to Know, You Must Go
Just describing Carnival doesn’t do any aspect of it justice. It is much more than its history and schedule; it is a visceral experience that has earned its place in the pantheon of unique human experience.
If you are even remotely interested in the prospect of the Rio Carnival, you owe it to yourself to make the trip. It will be unlike anything you have ever experienced before. Before you go, discover more about Brazil and its culture with John Waggoner’s adventure guide here on Geeker!