Is Carnival more than an escape?

by Tania Gianone

TORONTO – In considering the cycles of the months, February is a bit of a slump. Post-holidays, but tantalizingly close to Spring – one spends the 28 days of the month in waiting. But there is one light that shines on the blanket of frost in February: the celebration of Carnival, a time to escape.

Escapism is part of the human condition. Even babies in utero are known to dream. It is a phenomenon of getting out of the daily slump of our lives and into something more fantastical. Because of this, Carnival plays an important role in many countries’ national identities.

Take Brazil for instance. So important is Carnival to the traditions of the country, the celebrations are considered a national holiday. The samba parades of Rio de Janeiro are the festival’s most popular attraction. Just north of the area, in cities like Salvador and Recife, the main entertaining features are the music and dance themselves rather than the eye-catching costumes like the ones we see in Rio.

A city that may go under the radar when it comes to Carnival tourism is Sao Paulo. The largest and most important economic urban center in Brazil also hosts a diverse range of festivals. They include a Rio-style samba parade, many private parties, and a more recent, spontaneous version of street Carnival. This latter is generally referred to as Vila Madalena Carnival due to the cultural hub where this kind of celebration started.

With the success of this revival of neighbourhood Carnival parties, other places in the Sao Paulo city also became stages for this immersive style of Carnival, which is becoming attractive to the young tourists that search for a more casual way to join an urban outdoors party.

In a country united in celebrating Carnival, how are so many regions of the city so disparate in their celebrations?

As with most things dealing with the New World, the answer deals with colonization.

The early settlers of Brazil came from Portugal, bringing with them the festivities known as entrudo. As the slave trade boomed in the area, African slaves added their own traditions to the European-rooted celebration. This admixture of cultures and a homogenization of customs provided the backdrop for the early stages of what later became Carnival.

Concurrently, across the Atlantic, a similar festival in Italy was being celebrated. To harken the period of Lent, the Christian epicentre of Europe observed this religious period in their own way: including Venetian masks and delicious pastries.

The decades between the 1870’s and 1920’s brought with it a mass of emigration to Brazil from the Mediterranean countries, resulting in many of the traditions of Europe being diversified with local customs. Fast-forwarding to the jet set period and there was again a wider exposure to European traditions, resulting in even more French influence into the Brazilian Carnival.

Today, we see the impact of European and African influence on the various iterations of Brazilian Carnival across the country. Parties exist for socializing and celebrating a national identity. From energetic, rhythmic dance parties to masked debauchery involving water balloons – the Brazil we know today is a network of traditions stitched together through its sordid history of colonization and immigration.

So while today Carnival might be an escape from the everyday – an entrudo from reality – many Brazilians see it as a link to the past and a celebration not just of Lent, but of the resiliency and uniqueness of the country itself.

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