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If you were ever after a reason to party this month, well it’s carnival season. With roots in the Christian celebrations leading up to Lent, a time of fasting and restraint, this is the time of year to let loose.

Celebrated the world over, each country and region has developed its own unique carnival rituals and traditions – everything from food fights, glitzy trinkets, over-the-top costumes and mysterious masks.

Here are 9 of our favourite from the world over…

Beads, New Orleans, USA

The two are so famously intertwined it almost feels as though you can’t have Mardi Gras without New Orleans.

The parades are made up of floats created by different Mardi Gras krewes (clubs). As the floats make their way along the parade route, krewe members throw little trinkets into the crowd in the form of jewellery, toys, and other small items to the cries of “throw me something, mister!”. Of all these souvenirs the most famous are the beads, today they come in every shape and form such as animals, four leafed clovers, figurines, sports logos, shot glasses, even LED lights!

Top 10 Carnival Traditions 1

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Thousands of Dancers, Oruro, Bolivia

3700 metres high in the mountains of western Bolivia lies the town of Oruro, an important pre-Columbian ceremonial site, especially known for the Ito festival, a religious ceremony that has been marked for over 2000 years. Despite colonisation in 1606 and the Spanish banning their indigenous ceremonies, it continues to be a sacred site for the Uru people.

28,000 dancers, 10,000 musicians and 400,000 visitors make their way along a 4km processional route, repeating the journey for a full 24 hours non-stop dressed in extravagant outfits. The carnival was pronounced one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001.

Burial of the Sardine, Spain

A funeral for a fish is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of carnival, but that’s exactly what happens in towns and cities across SpainCelebrations in Spain kick-off in the same colourful and vibrant fashion that is seen in carnivals the world over before finishing up with a giant dead fish.

The Entierro de la Sardina (Burial of the Sardine) ceremony marks the end of carnival on Ash Wednesday. The ‘funeral’ involves a procession complete with mourners dressed in black parading a model sardine in a coffin around the streets before it is finally set alight symbolising rebirth and regeneration.

The Crazy Days, Cologne, Germany

Possibly the most appropriate name for the carnival period, Crazy Days celebrations start on Shrove Thursday with parties on the streets, in public spaces and pubs (there are no closing times during the festival).

The street carnival begins with the Women’s Carnival (Weiberfastnacht) where local ladies dress up in their best costumes and cut off the ties of any man silly enough to come near them. The main event is Rose Monday (Rosenmontag) a loud, colourful parade with floats, horses, music and thousands of people dressed in costumes. Flowers and kamelle (candies) are thrown from the passing floats to shouts of “kamelle”. Sometimes fancier items are thrown such as chocolate bars, bottles of Cologne and small gifts.

Bellringers, Rijeka, Croatia

Every year in the villages around the portside city of Rijeka, big hairy bear-like characters come out to play. During Rijeka Carnival, Zvončari (bellmen) march from village to village chasing away evil spirits and starting the cycle of spring in an ancient pagan tradition that is now recognised by UNESCO.

All this is part of Riječki Karneval, the largest carnival in Croatia, and while some of the traditions like the bellringers date back hundreds of years the modern day celebrations were established in 1982.

Gilles, Binche, Belgium

Bespectacled, ginger-bearded men are  the face of carnival in Binche, BelgiumKnown as Gilles, they are the oldest, and most famous, carnival participants. You’ll spot them from 4am on Shrove Tuesday dancing to traditional songs until the wee-small hours. The tradition is so important to the local community the Carnival of Binche was proclaimed one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2003. Every year around 1000 Gilles, all men, some as young as 3–years-old don the traditional Gilles outfit of a linen suit with red, yellow and black designs (the colours of the Belgian flag), trimmed with large white lace cuffs and collars, and, of course, the unmistakable Gilles mask which is worn all morning before being removed in the afternoon.

Masks, Venice, Italy

The elegance and opulence of the Venice Carnival is perfectly captured by the tradition of the carnival mask. The Carnival of Venice first appeared in 1162 and ran every year until 1797 when it was banned by the King of Austria and the wearing of masks was strictly forbidden. Interest in the festival slowly grew throughout the 19th century before it was officially relaunched in 1976.

Every year about 3 million visitors come to Venice especially for the Carnival and the key event is la maschera più bella (“the most beautiful mask”) competition. There are eight traditional styles of mask the bauta, Columbina, Medico della Peste, Moretta, Volto, Pantalone, Arlecchino, and Zanni. They were originally made of leather, porcelain or glass and designed in a simple, symbolic fashion while today’s best offerings are hand-painted and covered in everything from feathers to gold leaf.

Burani, Tirnavos, Greece

Starting on Shrove Monday, Burani celebrations combine a pagan fertility festival in honour of the god Dionysus with the beginning of the Greek Orthodox fasting period before Easter. With its roots in antiquity, the first written record of the Burani celebrations date from 1898.

The festival has faced its fair share of criticism with early 20th century governments and the church calling it an offence against the moral standards of people, but even prohibitions on the carnival didn’t stop the people of Tirnavos celebrating in secret until 1980 when the custom was revised. 

Today, the carnival of Tirnavos is the biggest in Central Greece, but what exactly is so offensive about Burani? Well, it could be all the giant phalluses. Groups of locals prepare the “Bourani” (spinach) soup, people dance, sing, joke and tease each other with rather obscene language. Everyone who passes the soup has to stop and stir the mixture, take a sip straight from the pot and then drink a shot of tsipouro (local alcohol) from a phallic-shaped shot glass. 

Candy Wars, Vilanova, Spain

The most important day of the carnival is the Sunday, when the streets of Vilanova fill with traditional parades of dancing couples. But it’s what comes next that you’ll want to stick around for. Everyone comes together in the town square where the famous sweet wars – Guerres de caramels – take place.

Throughout the day, adults and children in traditional costumes throw sweets at each other in a well humoured (non-injury causing) fashion.

About the author

Kara SegedinWriter, traveller, Tweeter, blogger and part-time adventurer. A kiwi living in London off to explore the world! I can never travel enough!

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