Where do Carnivals in the Caribbean Come From?

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Where do Carnivals in the Caribbean Come From?

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For even more info about Carnivals check out this detailed guide about Carnivals in Bocas del Toro...

With Carnival being one of the most anticipated festivals and celebrations in the Caribbean, if you're anything like me whose been enjoying them during several years now, you'll start to wonder about the origin of this famous 4-5 day holiday.

After traveling and living in the Caribbean for a few years now, I took it upon myself to do some investigation into this fun filled holiday. How can so many different countries that speak many different languages and consist of different cultural backgrounds, all celebrate the same holiday with very similar elements?

From women dressed up in huge feather costumes, showcasing their body art and men flaunting painted bodies, as well as dressed in devil costumes with whips and also men on stilts... the harmonious musical parades throughout the streets and endless (so it seems) joy one feels while taking it all in...
From women dressed up in huge feather costumes, showcasing their body art and men flaunting painted bodies, as well as dressed in devil costumes with whips and also men on stilts... the harmonious musical parades throughout the streets and endless (so it seems) joy one feels while taking it all in...

So let’s take a splash into the background and rich history of this ever so popular Carnival festival and celebration we all love and know so well.

Centuries ago, the followers of the Catholic religion in Italy would hold a festival before the first day of lent, during the days before Ash Wednesday every year. With this festival, the religious followers would dress up in wild costumes and parade around. Being that meat was not supposed to be consumed during lent, the festival was called "Carnevale" which means "to put away the meat". They would use this festival as a final celebration before lent to consume meat and enjoy themselves. The festival became so popular that it began to spread throughout the Catholic European countries. Subsequently, "Carnevale" made its way to other parts of the world when the slave trade began to become very active.

Known as Mardi Gras in many places, Carnivals started in Europe.
Known as Mardi Gras in many places, Carnivals started in Europe.

During the slave trade, when thousands of Africans were being transported throughout the Americas, the Africans brought with them their traditions and intertwined it with the traditions of "Carnavale". Within the African culture, it was typical to celebrate life by parading through villages in costumes and masks. This showcase represented good fortune, healing of problems, and to relax angry spirits and passed away relatives in the next world. With this African tradition, the usage of natural objects to make pieces of art, masks and costumes was a usual practice. The feathers within the costumes symbolized the ability to rise above problems, pain, heartbreak and illness. They also implied the belief of being able to travel to another world and be reborn in order to grow spiritually and be free. Each mask, costume and piece of art represented an idea and/or spiritual force. "Carnavale" was more than a religious holiday for the African slaves, it was a celebration of life and hope for better days. A way to express themselves. A time that allowed them to express themselves without judgment nor oppression. A piece of "freedom".

Another aspect of the the African culture that made a large influence on the modern day Carnival traditions is the music aspect. African drum rhythms were and still are an important aspect of the spectacle. The beating of the drums and accompanying dance movements are a common aspects of Carnival and can be witnessed from Brazil to the Bahamas Islands as the core and essential music preference during the holiday. From large puppets, stick fighters and stilt dancers, all of these traditions originated with the introduction of the African culture being intertwined with the original "Carnavale" festival.

Africa maybe is the largest influence in the Carnivals celebrated in the Caribbean and Bocas del Toro is no exception.
Africa maybe is the largest influence in the Carnivals celebrated in the Caribbean and Bocas del Toro is no exception.

Once freed, the slave’s Carnival became more popular than the original European "Carnavale". Transforming from a Catholic religious holiday that represented the beginning of lent, to becoming this world renowned festival and celebration representing much more than religion. Current day, Carnival ("Carnaval" in Spanish) is a representation of life, unity and liberty. It brings people together while also embracing their individuality and cultural differences. Recognizing that although we are different in many ways, we are still one in the same. From the biggest and most world renowned Carnivals in Trinidad and Tobago and Brazil, to the small Caribbean islands such as Anguilla and St. Vincent, they all celebrate life in their own way but essentially with the same core concepts: Life, Unity and Liberty.

So many people travel from far and wide to participate in and be apart of Carnivals throughout the Caribbean and Latin America each year. Some are aware of the holiday’s rich history and representation of life, but so many more are simply there for a good time without fully understanding the tradition of it all. I can admit that I was one of those "many more" that knew nothing about Carnival except that I would be able to party nonstop for 4-5 days in a beautiful foreign country. Not grasping hold of the essential point of it all. Therefore, from now on, whenever I attend a Carnival celebration, whether it be in Jamaica, Barbados or Panama, I will be sure to keep in mind the origins of this wonderful celebration of life and understand the deep, rich roots that influenced the current festival that we all love so much. Carnival has derived from Catholicism and evolved into a celebration of Life, Unity and Liberty and I am so glad that I am able to be apart of it.

Carnivals are the biggest party in Panma. Make sure not to miss them!
Carnivals are the biggest party in Panma. Make sure not to miss them!

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT CARNIVALS IN BOCAS DEL TORO, PANAMA... »

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Search our blog if you're visiting Panama! From must do's, where to party or eat, to which beaches and hiking trails you shouldn't miss, you'll find great insider info about Bocas del Toro, Panama City and Boquete, as well as Panamanian culture, customs and traditions, and certainly tips and advice for learning Spanish while in our country! We've been writing about all things Panama for over 10 years and nothing beats local knowledge from the locals themselves.


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