THE CARNIVAL – History and Traditions
09 Feb 2021

THE CARNIVAL – History and Traditions

Carnival is one of the most joyful, fun and entertaining festivals in the festive calendar, although in this 2021 edition there will be numerous limitations. The restrictions are numerous and there will be few events and/or shows that can be attended by the public.

Being able to dress up in fancy dress has always been one of the fun things to do during Carnival week. Schools, organisations and associations organise different Carnival parades which, this year, will have to be different. In schools, traditionally, the parade of the different groups of pupils parading around their town or city took place, but in this edition, it has been limited to the internal celebration of each class or bubble group. The same applies to the more popular and traditional events which, on some occasions, have had to suspend the presence of the public and on others can only be attended with prior reservation due to capacity control.

Despite the pandemic, different entities and organisations are carrying out their Carnival programmes as they want to maintain the traditions of festivity and joy. For this edition, work has been done to replace the traditional parades and street shows with concerts, exhibitions, workshops and competitions that can be held in a reduced format and with capacity controls or can be followed virtually so that they can reach all homes. Most of the proposals on offer are aimed at family audiences.

In the rest of the world, the situation is similar. The big carnival festivals, such as the one in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil or Venice in Italy, have been cancelled. Although Rio de Janeiro had planned to postpone it to July, in the end the mayor of the city preferred to cancel it until 2022. The same criterion has been followed in the other of the most traditional festivals, which has been held since the 18th century. Venice has also agreed to cancel the festival until 2022. However, in the different cities and countries, other traditional and popular activities take place with strong security measures, social distancing and OnLine broadcasting of the activities so that they can be followed exclusively from home.


Typical gastronomy during carnival week

The carnival festival also has its own gastronomy, which varies depending on the territory or country. In Catalonia, Larder Thursday or the day of the omelette involves savouring dishes in which the main ingredient is the omelette, butifarra de huevo, torta de “chicharrones” (cracklings), sardines and the traditional “buñuelos de viento” (little sweet fritters) or cream fritters so typical of Lent. The gastronomic activity continues its tradition as it is carried out in the family nucleus, and only popular gastronomic gatherings and celebrations have been more affected. Also, during Lent, cod is a traditional part of the different menus, which in the past was associated with an inexpensive meal suitable for the harshness of the time, although nowadays it is a highly appreciated dish in gastronomy.


Carnival is a celebration that takes place immediately before the beginning of Christian Lent. Carnival has some elements such as costumes, parades, and street parties. Despite the great differences in its celebration around the world, its common characteristic is that it is a period of permissiveness and a certain lack of control. However, custom gradually transformed the celebration into its current form.


Etymology of Carnival

There are different versions of the origin of the word carnival, such as the Latin carnevale which means the farewell of the meat that will not be eaten in the following 40 days of the Christian Lent before Easter. Or the connection with the celebration in honour of Carna, daughter of Helenus, goddess of beans and bacon.

Mardi Gras in French (or as they call it in Italian Martedi Grasso) means Fat Tuesday and refers to the big meal that used to be eaten before Ash Wednesday where the Easter fast begins.


The origin of this custom, according to historians, goes back more than 5000 years to the time of the Roman Empire, where similar occasions were celebrated and then spread to the rest of Europe and America by the Portuguese and Spanish navigators.

There is also a version that says that agricultural peoples were supposed to consume the winter food that they preserved thanks to the cold, before the arrival of spring and its higher temperatures, when the food was in danger of spoiling. They would then celebrate a great feast to eat all animal and perishable products and then fast until the spring equinox on 21 March (in the northern hemisphere) when they would have access to the products of the new season.

This version assumes that different religions then adapted their stories and myths according to these needs of nature.


Carnival and religion

Carnival is also closely related to the Christian tradition. It is celebrated a few days before Ash Wednesday, the day on which Lent begins. In the Christian tradition, the 40 days of Lent are a time of sacrifice in which, for example, one cannot eat too much. Therefore, during Carnival there is more freedom and many rules are broken. You have to take advantage of it to do everything you can’t do later on.

Two characters have historically represented the struggle between Carnival and the Lenten season. On the one hand, the Carnival king, a thick, dragonish, hard-drinking and crazy character. On the other, his enemy, the old Lent, an old woman with seven legs, who fasts and is a vegetarian.

Carnival today

Nowadays, the carnival is a celebration of a playful nature where games, music, banquets, dances and fun in general abound. It is similar to any other celebration of this type, where the uncontrolled and permissive nature of this celebration prevails.


All over the world, carnival is a cause for great celebrations and parties, with some places being well known for their great productions and attraction for their inhabitants and tourists seeking to see local traditions. The carnival of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Venice in Italy or New Orleans in the United States are the most resonant. With different customs and styles, they each form part of their own traditions and are a clear reflection of the personalities of each culture.