Carnival is one of the largest and most well-known cultural celebrations worldwide, and the reason why isn’t surprising: Brazilians know how to throw a good party. If you’re familiar with this holiday or have been lucky enough to visit Brazil during the celebration, you know about the streets flooded with parade performers, the vibrant costumes that people spend months crafting, and the electricity in the air from the throngs of party-goers dancing to samba music.
Curious to learn more about this iconic holiday and its origins? Read on to discover the history, details and facts about Brazilian Carnival, including some first-hand experience from one of SAMBAZON’s own Brazilian team members Maíra Wong.
Why is the Brazilian Carnival celebrated?
Maíra - “Carnival is probably the biggest and most celebrated holiday in Brazil. The whole country stops to attend different parties and parades that happen all over for pretty much the entire month of February (or sometimes March). It’s the time of the year where young, old, rich, poor, single people and families come together to celebrate our music, dance and culture.”
The beginning of this holiday traces back to the Latin word carne vale, which means “goodbye flesh”. It’s the last hurrah before Lent, a 40-day abstinence period from the consumption of meat and poultry, traditional to Roman Catholics. These carnivals were brought by Portuguese settlers from Europe when they colonized Brazil. Brazilians have amped up the ante with wild partying and Samba music that have created the largest Carnival festival in the world.
When is Brazilian Carnival and how long does it last?
Maíra - “The date moves every year; but it is always 40 days before Easter. Carnival is celebrated the whole month, but the holiday starts on a Friday, and ends on Ash Wednesday. So, five official days total.”
Where is Carnival Celebrated?
Maíra - “Everywhere! And with different styles! In Salvador, Bahia, there is one of the largest celebrations in Brazil with lots of Axé music playing in the streets on the famous – trio eletricos, which are trucks with stereo systems blasting the bands' music. Fans celebrate by following the trucks in the avenue. Sounds like a party for all, right? Not really, as the party goers are surrounded by ropes which protect the street are from people that don’t have tickets, which are t-shirts.”
Bahia, especially in Salvador, is organized around “bloco” parades which are grouped in neighborhoods with truck-mounted stages for the musicians. This celebration pays homage to its African roots through it’s samba-reggae and axé rhythms.
Maíra - “In Rio, the parades are a big deal. There are organized samba schools that all have a different theme within the macro theme for the year. Everyone from the samba schools create beautiful costumes that they spend all year working on. Many schools are in favelas and have humble people who save all their money to go on the parade with elaborate costumes during Carnival. Carnival has also become a big thing for celebrities, they dance and party along with the parades. There is something for everyone.”
Rio’s wide avenue named the Sambadrome de Marques de Sapucai host the city’s biggest celebration, with tens of thousands gathering to spectate over the samba school performances and floats. The themes of the parade include Brazilian history, social and environmental issues. In 2020, the year that Maíra attended with Asher Jay, the theme was the Amazon Rainforest and the problems and solutions we face in protecting this natural resource.
What to wear to a Brazilian Carnival?
Maíra - “For the costumes, think of it like dressing up for a Halloween costume, but it doesn’t have to be scary. It is Brazilian themed, like the corrupt ex-president, or nature-themed, like a toucan bird or butterfly. This is the time to go all out on costumes.”
Many of the Brazilian Carnival costumes are worked on by performers for the weeks and months leading up to the celebration. They include many different materials including beads, sequins, and feathers. At street parties, outfits often include neon colors, body glitter, face paint and vibrant accessories.
What is your favorite memory from celebrating Carnival?
Maíra - “When you watch the parades in Rio – you see the drums from the samba schools drumming team. Seeing them pass by the Sapucai camarote feels magical, you get goosebumps. The music is so strong, it goes right into your soul. I would say that is my favorite memory from Carnival, watching the drums from Salgueiro, my favorite samba school.
Are there any traditional Brazilian dishes that you look forward to during celebrations?
Maíra - “Yes, on Saturday at Carnival, many Brazilians eat feijoada. It is a black bean stew made with pork meat, and it is very traditional to eat that on Saturday. The story of this dish is interesting, it is very popular, but it originally came to Brazil with the slave population. The Portuguese Hacienda owners would cook black beans and leftovers from the pork, like feet or ears, and that was their meal. Doesn't sound very appealing but it is a very traditional hearty stew.”
What’s your advice on attending Carnival?
Maíra - “Fuel your day with Açaí! It will keep you hydrated and give you energy to jump and dance all day! Get creative with your costumes, this is the time to say what you think in a fashionable way. Wake up early to join the best blocos, get some food, watch the sunset and then go back to the night parties! It’s a marathon so don’t spend everything up on the first day!”
And there you have it! All you could want to know about this extravagant celebration that is so important to the culture and people of Brazil. Have you celebrated Carnival? Let us know how in the comments below.
Sarah Brown, “A Guide to the Costumes of Rio Carnival,” The Culture Trip, 7 April 2021, https://theculturetrip.com/south-america/brazil/articles/a-guide-to-the-costumes-of-rio-carnival/.
Sarah Brown, "How Did Brazil’s Carnival Start? ” The Culture Trip, 4 April 2018, https://theculturetrip.com/south-america/brazil/articles/how-did-brazils-carnival-start/