Let’s start with a bit of history: The carnival’s traditions root way back in the past. The discovery of “The man in the mask” in the caves of Trois Frères in Ariège in France date back 15000 to 10000 years before Jesus Christ. This goes to show that the traditions linked to the carnival are nearly as ancient as Man himself.
When it comes to the Caribbean carnival, it was Catholic colons that started the trend in the 17th century as a period of festivities before Lent, which was already a common practice in Europe. The traditions of the Caribbean carnivals find their origins in a mixture of African traditions brought with the slaves of the colonized islands, a mixture of the Christian traditions of Portuguese, Spanish and French colons and obviously from the local Amerindian culture. This suggests that each carnival will be different according to the organizing island and will be in possession of its own language, own traditions and customs. However, it has to be also mentioned that each carnival in the Caribbean all share common factors.
Amongst others, there is the character that symbolizes all the problems of the past year and which is burnt on Ash Wednesday. In Martinique and Guadeloupe, this character is called “Vaval”, and during the Ponce Carnival in Puerto-Rico, the same tradition is reproduced via “King Momo”… Besides this figure, more can be found in other Caribbean carnivals such as historical and political characters but also scary figures such as the red devils (Martinique and Guadeloupe), Marianne Lapofig and her clothes made of dried banana leaves, the “nèg gwo siwo” (literally: big syrupy negroes), or even the “sensey” in Dominica.
The Tradition of the Mask
But one thing that remains very marked throughout all the carnivals of the Caribbean is the mask. In fact, in Haiti for example, masks made out of paper-mache are the results of real artistry. Among the most popular masks, there is the “mas a roucou” or the “mas a kongo” – masks that symbolize African and Amerindian cultures. These masks have even been specially displayed by certain carnival groups with the aim of promoting historical legacy.
To resume, the various carnival parades of the Caribbean are simply one more activity that you should add to your holiday program in the islands. Generally, the carnivals in the West Indies happen between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday with specific dates for each island. Carnivals in the English-speaking islands (Saint Lucia, Antiguas, Barbados etc.) happen mostly during the months of July and August.
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