Carnival is upon us, along with its masks, parades and pageants. Here’s a look at five celebrations of Carnival around the world.
There was a time when I couldn’t wait to dress up in a costume: when I was in elementary school during Carnival. The Milanese tradition of the Ambrosian Carnival includes a parade of floats on Sabato Grasso, or Fat Saturday when costumed children throw confetti. The Ambrosian Carnival starts four days after classic Carnival…it is said that Sant’Ambrogio, Milan’s patron saint, postponed it himself.
During those years, choosing a Carnival costume was a very serious affair: I was a pink rabbit, a strawberry, a blue fairy, a geisha and Esmeralda from the Hunchback of Notre Dame, with a costume sewn by my grandmother that rivaled the official Disney store version. However, all these – wonderful costumes were systematically ruined and disfigured by layers of sweaters and coats I wore while braving the February cold, therefore more so resembling the Michelin Man and this has certainly dampened my enthusiasm and influenced the fact that now, even at Halloween, I prefer to eat sweets instead of sporting a costume.
My childhood traumas aside, Carnival is perhaps the most amusing and irreverent party that the Catholic tradition has bestowed upon us. Around the world, Carnival became the party for indulging just one final time before Lent.
Here’s a look at five of the most liveliest Carnival celebrations around the world.
1. Carnival in Venice
Italy has many Carnival traditions, and one of the most famous and spectacular is undoubtedly the Venice Carnival. This year’s festivities take place from February 8 – 25, during which the city of Doge’s Palace is animated by costumes and events. The festivities begin with an evocative water show in the Cannaregio canal. Among the other events, the Sfilata delle Colombine takes place the next day. This historic women’s gondola regatta departs from the Bridge of the Three Arches (Ponte dei Tre Archi) and finishes at the Ponte delle Guglie. The party continues with a competition for the most beautiful Carnival mask and the famous Flight of the Angel.
2. Carnival in Viareggio (Tuscany)
Since 1823, Viareggio has been the location of carnival’s most brazen celebrations, featuring wood-and-papier-mâché floats representing politicians and prominent figures. It started when the high-society boys of the Corso Mascherato decided to organize their own carnival parade. The 1930s brought the Burlamacco, the mask symbolizing the Carnival of Viareggio – similar to the Commedia dell’arte masks, but designed with a futuristic style based on the hues of the city’s beach umbrellas.
3. Carnival of Ivrea (Piedmont)
Ivrea’s ancient and sensational Carnival is rooted in the Middle Ages, mixed with later traditions of the Risorgimento’s insurrections. Throughout the city, the historic revolt of Ivrea’s citizens against their tyrant is re-enacted with a cast of familiar characters, including the miller’s daughter who was the target of a ius primae noctis, the medieval law permitting lords to have sex with subordinate women. You’ll see her in a golden chariot carrying a young married local girl dressed in white and throwing sweets and mimosas. But the highlight comes when citizens sporting Phrygian hats (a red one if you don’t want to be a target!) engage in an orange throwing fight against the tyrant’s army.
4. Rio de Janeiro
There’s no denying that Rio de Janeiro is the capital of Carnival. What better way to prepare for 40 days of sobriety than five days of wild dancing and concerts? The festival kicks off with the coronation of King Momo (the Fat) and every district parades its characteristic colors, each highlighting the traditions of its own bloco. Finally, the samba schools compete for four days in the Sambadrome — the dancers prepare all year for this event. Rio’s carnival costumes are characterized by bright colors…and a distinct lack of bulky coats!
5. Carnival in New Orleans
I’ll be honest – the Murder, She Wrote episode that took place during New Orleans Carnival is one of my all-time favorites! The Carnival, which culminates with Mardi Gras, in this enchanting city features parades of colorful floats throwing confetti and fake dollar coins engraved with the coats of arms of the krewes, the groups that organize the parade. Mystick Krewe of Comus, the oldest krewe, organized the first parade in 1857, combining the city’s British, French and Creole traditions. My feverish viewing of Louisiana-based True Blood leads me to conclude its members surely included some secret vampires.