Many visitors contemplating a Caribbean holiday might dream of white sand beaches and crystal clear waters but in reality, this magnificent part of the world is much more than just idyllic beaches and cocktails under thatched canopies.
Throughout the Caribbean, carnivals play an important part of life. For many travellers able to book holidays to Caribbean destinations during these celebrations, they provide a unique opportunity to observe and celebrate local culture through art, music, literature and dance. While many see carnivals as the perfect excuse to wear wild costumes and dance until the sun comes up, these traditions have become an important part of the Caribbean identity with origins that date back to colonial times and beyond.
Hundreds of years ago Catholics in Italy began the tradition of holding wild costume festivals right before Lent. Because Catholics were forbidden from eating meat during Lent they called this festival ‘carnevale’ – literally meaning ‘to put away meat.’ Over time, these festivals became well known and were adopted by the French, Spanish and Portuguese who in turn brought these traditions to their colonies in the New World.
The carnival festivities weren’t the only thing Europeans brought to the Americas, and soon enough African slaves began to participate in the events. Over time, African dance and musical traditions transformed the carnival structure – so much so that modern carnival activities in the Caribbean most closely resemble traditional African rituals such as parading and moving in circles through villages while wearing elaborate costumes in an effort to bring good fortune, heal rifts and calm angry spirits.
While many Caribbean carnivals still maintain ties to their religious roots, other carnival festivities are held throughout the year celebrating everything from emancipation to beauty pageant victories.
While individual celebrations vary from island to island, the vibrant and beautiful carnival traditions are incorporated into many facets of local life.
Trinidad and Tobago
Arguably the most famous carnival celebration is the one held in Trinidad and Tobago. This carnival is thought to have originated in the 18th century and was originally a mix of observing and simultaneously mocking the pre-Lent rituals of the French colonialists. After slavery was abolished the festival became an event all its own with a strong focus on colour, Calypso and celebrating life.
Almost every Caribbean destination from Jamaica to Barbados to Haiti and beyond feature their own version of carnival festivities. While the events are not geared toward tourists specifically, they are indeed a marvel to behold and a tourist attraction of a most impressive nature. Visitors to the Caribbean who are lucky enough to take in a carnival will marvel at the rich cultural traditions, vibrant colours and rhythmic sounds of this unique and important cultural tradition.