Once Christmas season is officially over in the Caribbean, it's time to dig out your dancing shoes and start thinking about Carnival, the hedonistic celebration that culminates on Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, the day before Lent begins.
Trinidad and Tobago, the birthplace of Carnival in the Caribbean, is still the biggest and wildest party, but there are many other islands where you can experience Carnival—even outside of the Carnival season.
Origins and History
Carnival in the Caribbean has a complicated origin. 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 "farewell to flesh" translation, while possibly fabricated, 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 Black people in Trinidad, along 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 tradition that included influences from all ethnic groups. 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.
These three elements—dressing in masquerade, music, and dancing—remain central to Carnival celebrations, whether it be at an elaborate French ball or steel drums in the streets, with costumes, masks, feathers, headdresses, dancing, music, and drums all part of the scene, along with raucous behavior.
Carnival Celebrations Around the Caribbean
From Trinidad and Tobago, Carnival spread to many other islands, where the tradition fused with the unique local cultures. While all of them celebrate with costumes and dancing, you can experience a different flavor of Carnival depending on where you visit, from salsa showcases in Antigua to calypso music in Dominica. Some celebrations have even moved off the Easter calendar and are celebrated in the late spring or summer.
It's impossible to discuss Caribbean Carnival without mentioning Trinidad, the mother of all Carnival celebrations in the region. The country hosts the biggest party in the Caribbean, primarily on the big island of Trinidad. Partygoers parade in the streets for two days straight while wearing elaborate feathered costumes (called "mas" on the island). Hotel rooms get booked up to a year in advance, so plan ahead if you want to attend this legendary festival.
The Dominican Republic definitely puts its own spin on Carnival celebrations, where the traditional calypso music is swapped out for bachata and merengue. And while Carnival generally brings to mind images of colorful costumes with feathers and showing lots of skin, partygoers in the D.R. often wear traditional garb that represents their African or Indigenous Taíno roots. Parades take place every Sunday in February throughout the country with La Vega being one of the top spots to visit, all culminating in the climax festival on the first Sunday in March in Santo Domingo.
Carnival in Puerto Rico is known officially as Carnaval Ponceño, since the festivities are centralized in the city of Ponce on the southern coast. It always takes place throughout the week leading up to Ash Wednesday with plenty of traditions that hark back to Spain, such as the final Burial of the Sardine ritual. On the final night, "mourners" carry a giant constructed sardine through the town in a mock funeral and then burn it. As with all Carnival events, the ritual is followed up by an all-night party.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines
In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, there is Vincy Mas, a carnival initially held in the days before Lent but now a summer celebration. Vincy Mas includes street festivals, calypso music, steel drum performances, and, most famously, Mardi Gras street parties and parades. It's the same Carnival tradition, just held a few months later.
In Martinique, travelers can check out Martinique Carnival, which takes place in the days leading up to Lent and consists of both local and tourist events. Particular to Martinique is the "King Carnival" celebration on Ash Wednesday that includes a massive bonfire in which King Vaval, "the king of Carnival," is made out of reeds, wood, and other flammable materials and then burned as an effigy in celebration.
In Haiti, locals and visitors alike can celebrate "Haitian Defile Kanaval," one of the larger carnivals in the Caribbean islands that extends across multiple Haitian cities. This Carnival celebration takes its Fat Tuesday celebrations seriously, with feasts, costumes, music, and all kinds of frenzied fun.
In the Cayman Islands, Batabano, one of the youngest Carnival celebrations in the Caribbean, is a popular May event that celebrates African history in the Caribbean, as well as the success of the present and future Cayman Islanders. The word "Batabano" is a nod to the tracks that local sea turtles leave in the sand when they move from their nests to the beach, a term some speculate was chosen to represent the growth of the Cayman Islands over generations.