Once Christmas season is officially over in the Caribbean, it's time to dig out your dancing shoes and start thinking about Carnival, a wild celebration that culminates on Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. (In the United States, that day and this celebration are known as Mardi Gras.)
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.
Trinidad, its original home, is the still the biggest and wildest party, but there are many other islands where you can experience Carnivals or simiar Festivals of a different name such as the Cropover in Barbados or the Junkanoo in Bermuda, the Bahamas, Jamaica and Belize.
In addition to this there are more Carnivals that occur during the year that share less of a connection to the catholic calendar and are rooted instead in the emancipation of the country, colonial slavery or both.
The final days of Caribbean Carnival festival season occur over 2 days and often begin with Jouvert Morning, The word "Jouvert" originates from the Antillean Creole French term meaning "dawn" or "daybreak" and this begins early in the morning often at 4am when it is still dark.
There are many stories regarding the origins of Jouvert Morning, some say that it's origins lie in the fact that it was at these hours that a Slave had the best opportunity of escaping from their masters.
Other stories tell of the end of Crop Season where Slave Masters would allow their Slaves to hold a party at the Slave Towns on condition that they burned and cleared the fields in order for it to be prepared for the next harvest. In this story the biggest and strongest men stayed behind to carry out the work allowing the Other Men, women and children to prepare for the party by working throughout the night making food, preparing musical instruments and decorations in order for the Festival to have everything it needed.
By the time these Men finished clearing the fields they would return to the Slave Quarters covered head to toe in soot, scaring the children and chasing the women, threatening to spoil their clothing with the soot.
These Men were honoured as in this story their sacrifice is what made the early start of the celebration possible.
The Final day of carnival is commonly called pretty Mas and is where the pretty costumes that have been designed and created on the island are worn during the parade.
A key feature of Caribbean Carnivals is that much like their South American counterpart, the festival season is celebrated by everyone right across the Island or country, with competitions, event, observances and parades happening in multiple locations.
Whilst the carribbean Carnivals are a spectacle, we would recommend visiting them if you want to celebrate the occasion with locals, or if you would like to join a carnival group as Caribbean Carnivals often combine the performance and artistic aspects of a carnival with the wild enjoyment of a street carnival, this makes it a little less of a performance when compared to some south american carnivals, but extremely high on intense fun, wild abandon and human interaction.
At Caribbean Carnivals the line between, performance, art and revellrey are closely intertwined that reflects the Caribbean Carnivals identity as a celebration of freedom of personal, political and social freedom.
The Roots of Caribbean Carnival
Carnival in the Caribbean has a complicated birthright: 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 latter explanation, while possibly apocryphal, 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 includes traditions from all ethnic groups contributing to the celebration. 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.