Traveling to Brazil in February is so linked with Carnival that many people on vacation never end up learning how or when it originated or the surprisingly spiritual underpinnings of the festival, whose modern incarnation is nothing if not debaucherous. It's a good idea to brush up on Brazilian carnival history before you travel. The annual celebration, which is known as Carnaval do Brasil in Portuguese, is so exciting you won't have time to do much besides immersing yourself in the culture of dancing, singing, drinking, and eating while it's actually taking place.
With there being so much to know about this Brazilian festival related to learning its history and cultural origin it is bound to make a profound impact on your vacation travels to be even more enriching.
Brazilian Carnival history begins before Brazil was even established as a country, back in the early 18th century. Around that time, in 1723 to be specific, immigrants from Portuguese territories like the Azores and Madeira brought their Entrudo tradition with them when they came to Brazil. This rowdy festival, itself inspired by earlier European Carnival celebrations that paid tribute to Greek wine gods, saw people take to the streets, dousing themselves in food, wine, and mud..
Initially, European Polka and Waltz music served as the soundtrack to Brazil's first few Carnival celebrations. However, as Brazil received more immigrants, its Carnival became even more unique and interesting, most notably when people from Africa introduced Samba music and dance in the early 20th century. Arguably, it's because of the integration of Samba into Carnival that it's now considered quintessentially Brazilian, despite its unmistakably African origins.
As the 20th century drew on, Rio de Janeiro's Carnival became the largest and most famous of all the ones in Brazil. Rather than a random street party, it's become an organized competition and parade. It sees members of Rio's many Samba schools first in competition and then in victorious procession: The "winner's parade" on the Saturday after the Carnival competitions are what many tourists consider to be Carnival itself.
Countless street parties take place throughout Rio de Janeiro (and all over Brazil) during the annual Carnival, and the most notable bash is at Copacabana Beach, which in addition to the main event at Sambadrome is where you're likeliest to find yourself if you visit Brazil during Carnival.
Today's Brazilian Carnival celebrations are a decidedly secular affair — a reminder of the festival’s Catholic religious origins is seen when determining the dates as Carnival takes place before Ash Wednesday and Lent. However, like the Portuguese festivals that morphed into Carnaval do Brasil, they are nothing if not a legacy of the Catholicism that secured the very founding of Brazil as a modern country.
So, why is Carnival in Brazil celebrated? The idea of Carnival, in Brazil and elsewhere, is to allow people one final festive outburst before Lent, when Catholics give up their vice (or vices) for 40 days. Although the "sin" that sometimes defines contemporary Carnival is on a different level than what you might've seen in centuries past, the spirit in both cases is one of purification.
In spite of Brazil remaining as Catholic in post-colonial times as it was back then, what has defined Brazil's take on Carnival (and, thus, Brazilian Carnival history) is something totally non-religious. Well, unless you consider Samba song and dance to be a religion, which, to be fair, some in the country might argue is true. As described above, the Rio de Janeiro Carnival centers almost entirely around Samba competitions, even if street parties around the city are more about debauchery than dancing.
So, what happens at Carnival in Brazil now that its religious past is often nothing more than a footnote? Surprisingly, there are some downright beatific elements, namely the way the adoring crowds worship the people who march in the parade and the angelic queen who serves as one of the leaders of the procession. On the other hand, some of the costumes and choreography would probably be unwelcome in most churches.
This is not to say Brazilian Carnival costumes are sexually explicit or revealing for the sake of being so. Rather, it's all about the festivity. Samba costumes are a full-body affair — literally. The feathery, fantastical pieces dancers attach to their bikinis and bodysuits give an otherworldly element to the various Samba teams, even more so than the graceful, gravity-defying ways they move to the rhythmic, driving music.
Both Samba dancers and many festival revelers also wear Carnival masks, which serve two purposes. First, the bright color, feathers, and glitter create a surreal look, further adding to the atmosphere of the entire spectacle. Secondly, these masks obscure not only people's faces, but the social classes that many people in highly unequal Brazil feel constrain them during the rest of the year.
As far as the music itself? As has been the case throughout the recent portion of Brazilian Carnival history, Samba music is defined by brass sections and guitars, which imbue a sense of bright celebration and punch percussion into every song. Even if you don't know anything about Samba before landing in Rio (or wherever you celebrate Carnival), it's almost impossible not to dance when you hear it.
Of course, for the people marching in the aforementioned parade in the Sambadrome (and in the days before the parade, competing for victory), the music is anything but fun and games, even if it brings joy to people. Teams prepare most of the preceding year for their competitions, which determine where in the parade they march and, therefore, the amount of adoration and recognition they get from cheering crowds.
With this being said, the very first people in the parade are truly not competitors at all. Rather, they're a flag bearer (who leads the entire parade) and the "King Momo" and "Queen and Princess of Carnival," who are often (but not always) well-known Brazilian celebrities. This helps boost the viewership of Carnival celebrations on Brazilian TV, even though foreign visitors may not recognize these individuals.
Although Brazil's most famous Carnival celebration is in Rio de Janeiro, the city is not the only Brazilian travel destination where Carnival takes place. In fact, you can experience Carnival in almost every major city in Brazil, from large cities like São Paulo and Salvador de Bahía to the Brazilian capital of Brasilia to coastal cities like Florianopolis. All Carnival celebrations in Brazil take place on roughly the same dates, regardless of the location.
Across Brazil, the size and scope of the Samba competitions that precede the parades vary widely. Not surprisingly, larger cities are going to have more competitors and more extensive celebrations that last for longer. Additionally, if you attend many Carnival celebrations over the year, you may be able to notice regional variations in both music and dance.
A familiar cognate to Americans might be the fact that New Orleans is not the only Mardi Gras in North America. Just as secondary U.S. celebrations in cities like St. Louis and Tampa add as many new elements to the New Orleans experience as they lack due to different locations, each Brazilian Carnival is totally unique, in spite of having many common characteristics.
There's also the issue of geography to consider. Going to Carnival in highly urbanized Sao Paulo will be a much more constrained experience than beachside in Rio, which is totally different from the cobbled streets of the historical Pelourinho district in Salvador. Likewise, the Amazonas Carnival in the city of Manaus takes place amid a wild, lush landscape amid the Amazon Rainforest.
The best time to go to Brazil Carnival is slightly different every year. That's because, as noted earlier, Carnival's celebration dates depend upon when Lent and Ash Wednesday fall during the year. In many years, Carnival can take place fully within February, but it sometimes spills into March. Needless to say, if going to Carnival is a top priority for you, you'll want to verify these days before you travel. If tourism numbers from throughout Brazilian Carnival history are any indication, you'll want to set your trip in stone as soon as possible to avoid extremely high prices on accommodation and other costs of traveling in Brazil at this time.
Carnival has taken place most years since its introduction into Brazil, but there have been some exceptions. Most notably, the event was canceled between 1941–1945 due to World War II. More recently, the 2021 event was canceled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Obviously, everyone hopes no more wars or infectious disease outbreaks occur in the future, but any huge global event or disruption could end up canceling a future Carnival. If, for whatever reason, an uncontrollable circumstance stymies a Carnival trip you're planning, don't despair. This is particularly the case if you're in Rio, which lives up to its "Cidade Maravilhosa" (marvelous city) nickname 365 days a year. The Carnival Museum within the Sambadrome is open all year, including on the typical Carnival dates during years in which the event can't take place, for whatever reason.
Even if you don't usually do a lot of "homework" for your travel trips, reading some Brazilian Carnival history is the best way to lay the foundation for a successful future vacation to Brazil. Learning about the first celebrations centuries ago, how they took place and why they started will help you appreciate what today's Carnaval do Brasil has become. Likewise, if you can't make it to Rio, familiarize yourself with events in cities such as Salvador and São Paulo.
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