Let’s Carnival! A virtual tour through the traditions of public masquerade worldwide

…Or, just another way to invite you to “The Secret of Love – The Art of Life“, an eco-activist Carnival in Tusnadfurdo/Tusnad Bai in Transylvania/Romania, Feb. 27 – March 5 2014 😉

The roots of the word Carnival originate from the latin words for meat – “carne” and leaving – “levare”, which together meant giving up on eating it in the 40 day Lent period before Easter. (Sorry for this highschool like introduction, but I needed to start somehow! 😉 ) Hence, the date of the main carnival events shift together with the religious events they depend on. In 2014 the Carnival week – which is not identical with the whole carnival season but only to its culmination and ending –, lasts from Tursday, feb. 27 to Ash Wednesday, March 5th, with culminating events on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday (which all bear distinctive names, like the well-known word Mardi Gras → Fat Tuesday). On Ash Wednesday at 00.00 sharp the Carnival is over, followed by the 40 days of lent before Easter.

Above and below: Highly organised, glamorous, commercialised, “touristificated” – but still iconic: Parades of the “Samba Schools” in the Sambadrom in Rio de Janeiro and precious masks and costumes of revelers in Venice


Masquerade and collective partying, apparently an ancient fertility and/or initiation rite from Egypt that had been perpetuated in Greece and Rome in the form of Dionysian rituals, Saturnalia and Bacchanalia had later been integrated into the religious circuit of the Christian year and preserved up to our age – mainly in the catholic countries/regions of Europe. Still, similar forms of festivities can be found in Christian-Orthodox countries, partly in Asia as well as in sub-Saharan cultures (the UNESCO heritage list inscribed rite of Kankourang from Senegal/Gambia that resembles rituals in Romanian inhabited areas of Bucovina).

Above and below: Africa is in Bucovina! (Or the other way round?) Kankourang rite in Senegal and Malanka rite in Crasna, Ukraine

спросить у Мамалыги

Today we have living Carnival traditions in catholic Europe in places like Venice, Basel, Cologne, regions like Catalunya, Andalucia and countries like Belgium and Hungary – as well as in Orthodox-Christian Europe in Strumica/Macedonia, Jambol and Pernik/Bulgaria. Transylvania/Maramures/Bukowina/Moldova in Romania may be seen as regions where the East and the West of Europe overlap – perhaps in the Carnival traditions as well.

Run, lole, run! At the beginning of February “Lole” (germ. “Urzeln”) in Agnita, southern Transylvania are “chasing” away the winter with whips, doughnuts and …a “bear”.

Ku Klux Clan? No, Kukeri in Bulgaria (Pernik, Karlovo, Smolyan)

Népszokás - Búsójárás Mohácson
More Kukeri? No, busó, (croat. bušari) in Mohacs, southern Hungary, Baranya (borderregion with Croatia and Serbia)

Carnival in Strumica, Macedonia

Exported by Spaniards, Portuguese and French to the Americas, the Carnival tradition established itself in some Southern states of todays East coast of the US (New Orleans/Louisiana, Mobile/Alabama), in the Caribbean Islands (Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad & Tobago) and Latin America (Salvador de Bahia, Rio de Janeiro/Brasil). In the Caribbean Islands and Brasil Carnival has flourished and preserved probably most of its original character and scope of loosening or even suspending social/political conventions in order that individual and collective energies can discharge once per year.

Iconic like Rio and Venice (but more ironic)… Mardi Gras in the French Quarter in New Orleans

Some explanations as to why Carnival is still untamed and partly a Bacchanalia (Jamaica) in these countries, lie in the strong social discrepancies in those countries as well as in the history of slavery and in the African cultural roots (among others Senegal) of many of the inhabitants of those countries. This make festivities of this kind even more necessary in order to maintain social peace and keep the “system” going. One may say that Carnival has come to Latin America from two different directions: Europe and Africa, borrowing from the white people the framework and the organizational skills and from the black people the vitality and the addiction to rhythm, dance and music resulting in well-established collective festivities of mixed “creol” character.

Carnival & Calypso dancing in Trinidad (Painting from 1838)

Carnival (& Calypso) dancing in Trinidad today: Wild, vital and untamed as always

Our present picture and experience of Carnival is being shaped mainly by media reports from places like Rio de Janeiro, Venice and Cologne/Mainz – as well as from our childhood’s “farsang”, “bal mascat”, “Fasching” experiences. Still, what is less known is, that it’s NOT the Rio Carnival that deserves the title of the biggest Carnival in the world, but apparently Salavador de Bahia in the North of Brasil (the so called “African Capital” and Capital of music of the country) does. In Salvador, the event lasts one whole week, the party comprises several hundreds of thousands of people over a circuit 25 kilometers long. Rio’s carnival is big and glamorous yet smaller in size and duration.

Guess what? Humans have so many different body parts! Above: Explicit body language during th Karneval in Mainz/Germany, below during Bacchanalia-Carnival in Jamaica and Mardi Gras in New Orleans


Butt (in Southern America) versus boobs (in Northern America): Cultural anthropologists might know better why different cultures emphasize different parts of the body…

What is also less known is that there are many other places with an extremely rich and vital Carnival culture – like the “Mas” → ‘masquerade’ in the capital of Trinidad & Tobago with a very high attendance and elaborate festive and organizational forms. There are significant differences though between Rio, Salvador and Port of Spain/Trinidad, the three locations that all claim to stage “the” biggest carnival party in the world: Rio: glamorous and voyeur like due to TV broadcasting worldwide. Salvador de Bahia: you are the carnival and the carnival is you. Trinidad: life is a carnival, forget anything else!

As well, the general public doesn’t know almost anything about the fact that there are countless small towns and villages in the “carnival countries” that have well established and rooted Carnival cultures that don’t mean only fun to the locals but as well culture (BTW, not only the Carnival “capitals” Rio, Salvador, Venice have been listed as intangible UNESCO heritage sites, but the smaller events in Mohacs in Hungary and Santa Cruz de Tenerife as well). Add to this social protest(!) (Venice in the past, Trinidad), identity building (Trinidad, Agnita/Transylvania), social cohesion (mask making, rehearsals and team work over 10-12 months per year, (Rio, Bingen/Germany) and economy as well (in Trinidad, the ‘Mas’ contributes an estimated 2-3% to the country’s GDP of the 1,5 Million population).

“Kinderkarneval” in a church(!) in the Western part of Germany

Painting of an “Urzel”/”lole” mask in Agnita

Fuga Lolelor/Urzellauf in Agnita, Romania

Each Carnival location – mainly the commercialized and mediatized ones have specific features that make them unique: The highly elaborated masks and costumes in Venice, the parades, allegoric floats and the Samba in Rio, the street-party in Salvador, the political speeches in Cadiz and Cologne, the fantasy monster masks in Mohacs and the throttle costume and whips in Agnita.

Working on the figures of a typical carnival “float” in Rio’s “Carnival City”

World record? 25 kms of street party around the music trucks, a total of 2 Million participants during six days of party from 5 PM to 5 AM: The street carnival in Salvador de Bahia

Carnival in Cadiz, part of the intangible UNESCO world heritage

In vino veritas. A “Buettenredner” (“Barrelspeaker”) in Ruelzheim, Rheinland-Pfalz tells you the truth you never wanted to know

Here are some of the better-known locations
BE: Carnival of Binche, Carnival of Aalst (both listed as intangible UNESCO heritage),
ES: Cadiz, Tenerife (→ both UNESCO heritage), Solsona/Catalunya
PT: Ovar, Lazarim, Madeira, Azores, (“Mallassada” tradition → doughnuts that have spread with the Portuguese migrant workers over to Hawaii), while PT is importing meanwhile elements from the carnival in Rio
DE: Cologne/Mainz
FR: Nice, Limoux, Dunkirk
EN: Notting Hill etc. (reimport from the Caribeeans)

From Africa to America to Europe. Caribeean “Carnival” in Notting Hill (actually a summer festival not related to the carnival/lent period as such)

HR: Rijeka Carnival, with a Megleno-Romanian affiliation due to the “Zvončari”, or bell-ringers tradition in Žejane, a former MR village above Rijeka.
SLO: Carnival in Ptuj (Kurentovanje), which seems to have common elements with the Mohacs Carnival in HU and the Urzellauf/Fuga lolelor in Agnita/Agnetheln/Transylvania)
HU: The Busójárás in Mohacs which at its origin – and even today – is not so much an ethnic Hungarian but a Croatian/Schokatz (Šokci) tradition. Mohacs has been inscribed as well on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of the UNESCO
RO: Agnita/Agnetheln/Szentagota, Maramures, Bucovina. In Agnita, it’s a unique phenomenon that the former Saxon/German custom of the “Urzellauf” has been successfully revitalized by the Romanian inhabitants of Agnita after the emigration of the Saxons in the early 90’ies. At the end of the masquerade the participants sing together in Romanian and German the “Transylvanian Anthem” – a touching highlight of the event.
UKR: The Malanka custom in the Romanian inhabited village of Crasna near Cernauti
MAK: Strumichki Karneval – a surprisingly long lasting high quality Carnival event with international participation
BG: Traditional forms of masquarade are being held amongst others in Jambol and Pernik
GR: Several places still have annual carnivals, including the town of Tyrnavos (observe the Slavic name!) in central Greece which holds an annual Phallus(!) Festival.
TR: There’s a recent revival of the former Greek carnival in Istanbul/Constantinople: Baklahorani.

Don’t “mess” with the (once Romanian/Vlah) Zvoncari in Rijeka!

– eating meat until a certain day followed by a lent period, baking doughnuts/gogosi/Krapfen, (RUS: blinny during the event called Maslenitsa)
– dancing, singing,
– making noise, shouting specific words, “magic” formulas (Koelle Alaaf! and Helau! in Germany, Kaio! in Trinidad, Hiräii! in Agnetheln/Transylvania etc.)
– using masquerade, costumes
– parading in public spaces,
– electing a carnival king/princess,
– burning of a puppet made of straw to chase away evil, winter, bad energy (mainly in Europe),
– organizing the event by Carnival associations and or town-halls
– ongoing loss of religious meanings and rituals
– a tendency towards commercialization and making it more “tourist friendly”
– disruption of the apparently linear flow of time in human life and reenactment of the “circular time” and “circle of life” patterns through rhythm, music, suspension of binding moral codes between the sexes.
– criticism of politics and society and symbolic overthrow of certain social rules (slaves become kings, and vice-versa, men become women etc.)
– identity (re)building function, mainly in Central-Eastern Europe after 1989


– Carnival, dance and politics are usually intermingled: As an example the Wiener Opernball which takes place on Carnival Thursday (27. 03. 2014) goes back to the Peace Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 after the Napoleonic wars and the adjacent socializing and trust-building events organized by the Austrian “host” of the conference in order to help finding a lasting agreement between the parties.
– Carnival in Venice prohibited during Austrian rule in late 18th century
– Carnival in Cadiz and Tenerife prohibited and renamed during dictatorship in Spain. The same applied to Brazil and to Agnita/Romania during some years of the communist period; and to Trinidad during slavery (before the 1830’ies).
– In 1980, the European Federation of Carnival Cities had been founded (FECC) that interconnects carnival places and its traditions in Europe.
– Carnival has almost disappeared in protestant countries/regions (Northe/Eastern Germany, England, Sweden)
– In Trinidad a Carnival Institute has been established 50 years ago as part of the Ministry of Culture in order to manage this identity shaping event in the country.
– The EU has funded cultural and research projects on Carnival – as a sign that it pays attention to this phaenomenon. LINK

“Der Kongress tanzt” There were times when peace congresses were …dancing, like in 1814 in Vienna thus creating today’s “Opernball”.

Opernball 2011 - Tanz in die €ra Meyer
“Alles tanzt!” Stiff, posh, elite Opernball today which takes place on Carnival Thursday (27. 02. 14)

The overt criticism of kings, (religious) authorities and VIP’s, the breaking of rules and the symbolic overturn of social hierarchy has always given (certain) carnivals an anti-system, subversive, potentially anarchic touch. Today (eco-/leftist) street protests in Europe often use clowns, samba drums, dancing, role play, Anonymous-masks and/or other funny methods in their creative yet peaceful protests against “the system”. These methods often prove very useful to deescalate tentions between protesters and police forces or opponents of the protesters.
No wonder that authoritarian or overtly opressive regimes have always tried to marginalise or simply prohibit carnivals in different parts of the world, be it in Brasil during the military dictatorship, in Spain during the Franco regime or Romania under Ceausescu’s rule. Thus the collective and peaceful celebration of human nature and vitality seems to be percieved per definition as THE enemy of any illegitimate coercion by the state or interest groups of any kind. To put it positively, one can say that carnival revitalises humans and human society.

“Clowns army” in Germany

Samba protest in Brussels

Samba protest in Rosia Montana (during “Reclaim the Fields”, 2011)

Carnival (or its absence) expresses something about the society, time and space we’re living in. Carnival seems to be an echo of the tradition based societies and their cyclic view of life which found its expression in a rhythm-based circle of the year with nature being perceived as dying and being reborn every year, humans following and reenacting this pattern as well. Carnival thus expressed the (forgotten?) knowledge that we humans are subject to the same rules of life like any other living creatures.
The historic circular path of the carnival tradition over 3-4 continents and its reimport to some European countries may be a hint that not only life of individuals but that of society in general, as well as historic processes, follow anything else but linear schemes. To the contrary, they rather seem to go through loops/circular phases of growth and decay/dissolution, followed by a rebirth/”restart”. So, let’s follow the circle! Let’s Carnival!


SOURCE: National Geographic (LINK)

Out of Africa, back to Africa… Carnival in the Cabo Verde Islands

PS: So far we’re 35-40 participants from 7 countries at the carnival in Tusnad Bai… Join us! There’s still some free places!

Starting point of the article and main source: Wikipedia article about Carnival and hyperlinks.

To Daniela J., for the spellcheck! 🙂

Posted by at 18/02/2014
Filed in category: Uncategorized, and tagged with: , , , , , ,

3 Responses to Let’s Carnival! A virtual tour through the traditions of public masquerade worldwide

  1. Anonymous says:

    Da wird simplifiziert und vermanscht, dass sich nur so die Balken biegen!

    Die Meglenorumänen sind orthodox und es war nie bekannt, das sie Fasching feierten. Einzig die Tschitschen (Istrorumänen) machten als römisch-katholische Gruppe mit. Dabei ging/geht es mutmaßlich um eine Symbiose aus alten kroatisch-slawischen und venezianischen Gebräuchen. Die ganze Gegend war bekanntlich zeitweise von Venedig beherrscht.

    Was da kess aufgelistete wurde, ist eine schlampige Kompilation der „Fasching“ heulenden Hunde aller Dörfer. Mehr nicht! Noch dazu in mäßig elegantem (was mir an sich ziemlich wurscht wäre …) Besatzeridiom. Da wird Multikultiblöditum im Stile Gutmensch zelebriert. Alles zusammenmanschen und jeder sorgfältigen Abgrenzung – ja vielleicht gar Analyse? ha, ha, ha – peinlich aus dem Wege gehen, lautet die Devise. Wenn´s im Besatzeridiom zusammengeschmiert ist, dann hat ja alles seine Richtigkeit …

    Die derzeitigen Akteure der Žejanski zvončari können ab einer gewissen Altersstufe so gut wie ALLE Istrorumänisch! Sie singen einen Teil ihrer Lieder auch auf Istrorumänisch. Man kann sich mit ihnen problemlos – langsam genug muss es sein – auf Blesch unterhalten.

    Wäre schön, wäre das nicht im Besatzeridiom verfasst worden …

    Braucht jemand das Besatzeridiom auf diesem Blog?

  2. Movila Maria Magdalena says:

    Multumesc Hanssi Daniela.Foarte interesant si provocator in sensul foarte bun si placut al cuvintului.Acum stiu exact de ce trebuie sa fiu cu voi la Carnaval.Trebuie sa renastem traditiile noastre,sa ne regasim ca transilvani ce sintem,sa ne cunoastem toti cei care vrem sa facem ceva valoros in Transilvania.Hans esti de nota 10*****!Eu simt ca vom reusi!

    • hans says:

      maria, mersi mult! subiectul transilvania e unul specific, de aceea as vb la modul general: da, avem traditii (peste tot in lume, in romania, in ardeal) si avem dreptul si privilegiul sa ne indreptam atentia spre ele pentru a le continua si revigora!

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