Carnival, carnaval, carnevale. Call it what you like, but the first huge global parties of the year are the celebrations that lead up to Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. Traditionally, this pre-Lenten build-up is a full-on session of drinking, parades, partying and all-round riotous revellery. Carnival celebrations evolved through a combination of influences; pagan rituals, the Latin feast of Bacchus, the Roman Saturnalia, and variously celebrations of food, wine, virility, fertility and springtime renewal. Most events usually get going seriously four or five days before Mardi Gras itself, although, with the larger carnivals, preparations and some initial low-key events may have been taking place for months.
The term “carnival” derives from the Latin “came vale”, or “farewell to the flesh”, a final celebration before Ash Wednesday and the temperance that follows. Mardi Gras is also known in some countries as “Shrove Tuesday” – an altogether more acceptable appellation to the Church, which has never been comfortable with carnival. So successful were the pre-Lenten celebrations that over the centuries the term “carnival” has become used to describe any kind of celebration, usually completely unrelated and taking place throughout the year – Notting Hill Carnival, for example. But it’s the original, genuine events that shine the brightest.
The dates of carnival vary each year and are excruciatingly complicated to work out. Mardi Gras occurs 47 days before Easter Sunday, which allows for the forty days of fasting for Lent (excluding Sundays). Easter Sunday takes place on the first Sunday after the official full moon that occurs after the vernal equinox (March 21). The “official” bit of the full moon refers to some erudite fiddling around needed to reconcile the lunar and Gregorian calendars. The upshot, anyhow, and the important bit as far as this book is concerned, is that from year to year Mardi Gras can fall anywhere between February 3 and March 9. There are moves afoot to fix Easter as the second Sunday in April, which would make Mardi Gras the third Tuesday in February each year, but don’t hold your breath…
So where should you be living it up before Lent? Well, there’s the “Big Three” – Rio (right), New Orleans and Trinidad – or you could opt for one of the more traditional, quirky European events. Spain tends to do carnival best, with the raunchy affairs in Tenerife and Cadiz spilling over well beyond Shrove Tuesday, although Belgium and Germany also like to party come carnival time, laying on some of the most extraordinary events of all.
For a double carnival whammy, note that the Orthodox Church Calculates Easter differently, resulting in carnival celebrations in Greece and Cyprus that are generally at least a week out of synch with the others.
The festival year
The year kicks off, as you might expect, with New Year celebrations – most famously in Scotland, but everywhere in the world greets its arrival in some way or another. The volume is cranked up a notch further come carnival season, usually a month later. Spring and then summer see major sporting events, including the Monaco Grand Prix, as well as big music festivals such as Glastonbury, and the Love Parade in Berlin. There are, of course, also May-Day celebrations, midsummer festivals – enjoyed with particular gusto in Scandinavia and the Baltics – and assorted events that squeeze the most out of those last few summer months: Notting Hill Carnival, Spain’s La Tomatina, and Italy’s Il Palio. For some reason, September is the preserve of full-on, relatively recent entrants in the festival calendar such as Burning Man, Florida’s Fantasy Fest and Ibiza’s Closing Parties, while October and November are more rooted in tradition, with All Souls’ Day being celebrated in wildly differing ways as Halloween in New York (and elsewhere) and as the Day of the Dead in Mexico, followed closely by the bizarre celebrations of Britain’s Bonfire Night.

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