The Cultural Origins of Carnival

By Martin Kocandrle, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO – The streets are packed with revelers as everyone gets caught up in one of Rio de Janeiro’s most anticipated events, Carnival. For the notorious reputation it has as one of the world’s largest parties, it is surprising that the origins of this celebration are rooted in both European and African religion.

A depiction of Carnival in its early years circa 1822, photo by Augustus Earle/Wikimedia Creative Commons License.

A depiction of Carnival in its early years circa 1822, photo by Augustus Earle/Wikimedia Creative Commons License.

As a part of the Portuguese colonialism, they brought many religious and cultural values from Europe. Catholicism was the dominant religion of South American settlers, and the source of Carnival’s origin as a festive time before the forty-day abstemious period of Lent.

Lent, in Christian tradition, is the period of the liturgical year leading up to Easter. The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer — through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial.

These early celebrations of Carnival are far from the way the festival is currently celebrated nowadays. During Brazil’s colonial days, it was characterized by private parties in the spirit of grand Parisian balls hosted by the settling elite there was little opportunity for the wider population (mainly slaves and indigenous populations) to celebrate.

A curious aspect of the preliminary Carnival celebrations was what the revelers called “Entrudo”, which was both a playful and often violent activity that involved minor rioting, destruction of property and oddly enough the throwing of lemons. Fortunately the violent aspects of Entrudo have given way to more peaceful pursuits such as music and dancing.

The Portuguese settlers brought more than just religion with them though, until 1880’s the sordid slave trade persisted. Despite its cruel nature, it resulted in the permeation and mixture of cultural values between social and religious divides. The Africans brought musical and religious traditions to Brazil that would soon become intertwined with the Carnival traditions of their European captors.

A popular religion for slaves at the time was, Candomblé, which originated in the state of Bahia. As this religion spread throughout the slave population so did the music of Samba, which was popular with its adherents.

Practioners of Candomble in Bahia, photo by Stephanie Pommez/ Flickr Creative Commons License.

Practioners of Candomble in Bahia, photo by Stephanie Pommez/Flickr Creative Commons License.

The abolition of slavery resulted in a greater mobility on behalf of the population. As the interaction between classes became a social reality, the religious and cultural values became entangled, including the practice of Catholicism and Carnival.

Those excluded from the grand celebrations of the ruling class, celebrated in their own by taking to the streets creating costumes with African flair characterized, by elaborate decorations, and vibrant colors.

Rather than maintaining separate celebrations, over time the Catholic and African influences began to fuse together. Eventually the two sides found themselves mutually sharing the same types of music, dance, and festivities.

The traditions of both lineages in Carnival are still present to this day. Although it is fundamentally a Catholic holiday, the celebrations seem to retain more of the African influence embodied in the Samba music, costumes and street parties that are becoming increasingly popular.

Presently the Carnival has bloomed into a celebration enjoyed by citizens from around the world, it has created an industry that provides jobs to residents, and brings in significant tourism income from across Brazil and abroad.

Besides some pricey venues, the social exclusion characterized by the earliest celebrations has largely disappeared. The music and culture of Carnival have succeeded in uniting the people of Brazil despite any social divides that may separate them in everyday life.

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