Every year in many places around the globe, Carnaval marks the time when people shake of dreariness and gloominess of the dismal winter and kicks off springtime with a colourful and festive bang. In fact, Carnaval as we know it today has its origins in a Catholic festival (with roots in traditional European pagan celebrations) that revolved around the Spring Equinox, marking the shift from winter to summer and darkness to light.
But did you know that Mardi Gras is supposed to be the last day of festivities and colourful celebrations before the beginning of dreary, gloomy and dismal Lent, that “solemn religious observance in the Christian liturgical calendar commemorating the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert, during which he endured temptation by Satan”? Lent is seen as being a mostly Catholic observance but it is also observed by a significant number of Protestant churches as well. It begins on Ash Wednesday, when practicing Christians have ashes sprinkled over their heads or marked on their foreheads, usually with the sign of the cross, and ends in Holy Week (Semana Santa) with the celebration of Easter. During the Lenten period of self-denial people in many countries would traditionally abstain from certain pleasures (such as meat, alcohol or even sex) and children would be encouraged to “give up” something (like sweets, for example) and put the money they would have spent into the “poor box”.
With all that looming “sacrifice” it is no wonder that the last day before Ash Wednesday, Shrove Tuesday, which began simply as the day for finalizing one’s Lenten sacrifices and eating a few final sweets and pancakes, evolved over time to become Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday”), the last day and night of gorging on rich, fatty foods before the period of fasting began. Nowadays “Mardi Gras” is especially synonymous with the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, in the USA, and the term covers not just the Tuesday but all the celebrations that take place in the approximately two preceding weeks.
So what’s the difference between Mardi Gras and Carnaval?
Well, it’s not that there’s a difference between the two, but rather that Mardi Gras is, strictly speaking, the culmination of Carnaval, the last day and night of partying. Depending on where you are Carnaval can start days, or even weeks, before Mardi Gras, and nowadays in countries where people tend to be far less religious than previous generations Carnaval doesn’t always strictly end with Mardi Gras either!
The name “Carnaval” itself derives from the Latin carne vale which can be translated as “farewell to meat” or “farewell to the flesh” as Lent was supposed to entail abstinence from meat (carne) as well as other pleasures of the flesh (also carne)! In Italian it is still spelt as in the old Latin, Carnevale, but in Catalan, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Dutch it is Carnaval; while in English it’s Carnival and German, Karnaval. Whatever the spelling, Carnaval is celebrated with varying degrees of vigour and enthusiasm in countries all over the world, but especially in Europe and the Americas, both South and North, including the Caribbean.
Some of the most (in)famous Carnavales around the world are the aforementioned Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana and those held in Brazil. The most internationally famous Brazilian Carnaval is, of course, the one staged in Rio de Janeiro, but the cities of Salvador and Recife also hold huge street parties. In fact, the Carnaval in Salvador de Bahía, Brazil’s most “African” state, is considered by many to be the best and most authentic of the country’s carnavales, a proper street party. Not to be outdone, Spain has a couple of Europe’s best Carnavales in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Las Canarias, and in Cádiz. Elsewhere in Europe some of the biggest parties taking place in Venezia, Nice and Köln.
Because Mardi Gras is calculated backwards from Easter to allow for the 40 days of abstinence (which don’t include Sundays by the way!) its date changes from year to year. Easter is what’s known as a moveable feast that depends on the cycle of the sun and the seasons but always falls between 22 March and 25 April in Western Christianity. This year (2023) Easter Sunday falls on 9 April, meaning that Mardi Gras, the last day of Carnaval, will – or at least should – happen on 21 February.
Carnaval in Espanya
These days Spain has some of the biggest and best Carnavales in Europe, but this wasn’t always the case. In 1937, with the Spanish Civil War raging, Carnaval, was suspended as being “incompatible with the sacrifices and suffering being endured by the population” – a fair point really. After the war ended in 1939, Franco’s dictatorship issued an Official State Bulletin ordering the indefinite and “absolute prohibition of the celebration of such celebrations”, and although some permits were issued permitting certain Carnaval celebrations towards the end of the Franco era, it wasn’t until 1978 that the ban was officially lifted.
As we mentioned, the most famous Carnaval in Spain takes place in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in Las Canarias, and it is generally considered to be the biggest and wildest in all Europe, and is often referred to as “the closest thing on the continent of Europe to the Rio de Janeiro Carnaval” – except, of course, Las Canarias aren’t actually on the continent of Europe! Las Palmas de Gran Canaria also celebrates Carnaval in style but is somewhat overshadowed by its island neighbour. In southwestern Spain, Cádiz in Andalucía also puts on an impressive show.
Much closer to home in Catalunya is the Carnaval de Sitges, just half an hour on a train south of Barcelona city. The Sitges Carnaval is another very elaborate one with “societies” vying with each other and upping their game year after year, always trying to outdo their rivals in sheer flamboyance. Events take place in the city of Barcelona too, mainly in the Born and Ribera barrios, but nothing like on the scale of Sitges.
Costa Brava Carnavals
Here on the Costa Brava events are on a slightly smaller scale but there is still lots of fun to be had. In some towns, events take place over just a couple of days while in others it’s a full two-week affair. After a couple of years of cancellations and disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2023 edition of Carnaval saw events returning to their traditional form.
Below are the Carnaval dates for 2023 in some of the towns along the Costa Brava. If the name of the town is underlined and in blue, you can click on it to see the programme of events. One or two have yet to be fully confirmed, but we will do our best to update as soon as we get the information.
Cadaqués: 17 – 21 February
Roses: 16 – 20 February
L’Escala: 18 – 20 February
L’Estartit: 17 – 19 February
La Bisbal d’Empordà: 12 – 25 February
Pals: 11 – 12 February
Palafrugell: to be confirmed
Palamós: 11 – 22 February
Calonge-St. Antoni: 19 February – 1 March
Platja d’Aro-S’Agaró : 11 – 22 February
Sant Feliu de Guíxols: 11 – 22 February
Costa Brava Sur: 17 February – 04 March (Tossa de Mar + Lloret de Mar + Blanes)
The Carnaval in Castell-Platja d’Aro is normally the biggest one on the Costa Brava, but still, don’t be expecting New Orleans levels of revelry here in Catalunya as events here are largely family-oriented with lots of events specifically intended for kids. One event that’s definitely not meant for children is El Gran Despertà, literally, “The Great Awakening”. Not every Carnaval does it – Palamós does, for example – but what it entails is basically waking up the citizens of the town at the crack of dawn, (officially 6am) with trucks driving around blaring music at full volume and making lots of noise in general, and then starting the party. At some time between about 9am and 10am, the participants are supposed to jump into the sea – no doubt to sober up a bit – before moving the festivities to the Town Hall and then the municipal market, before finally sitting down to a big feed at around 14:00.
Did you say “Burying the Sardine”?
Wait a minute though! Mardi Gras is on Tuesday 21 February, but there are events scheduled for as late as early March as well! What’s that all about? Well, as we said at the start, in these less religious times festivities sometimes spill over into the beginning of the Lenten period. Additionally, here in Spain, Catalunya included, there is an unusual custom that takes place on Ash Wednesday known in Spanish as El Entierro de la Sardina, or L’Enterrament de la Sardina in Catalan: literally “The Burial of the Sardine”! Yes, the sardine! The custom was originally to bury meat (that supposedly represented debauchery and sin) to mark the beginning of Lent, but nowadays it is usually grilled rather than buried. And as for the sardine, one theory is that it is a corruption of the word cerdina (a diminutive of the Spanish word for pig: cerdo, meaning piglet), as people in certain areas sometimes referred to pork meat, and this eventually evolved and morphed into sardina.
The parade is typically a parody of a funeral procession, culminating in the burning or burial of the sardine. The most famous Entierro de la Sardina happens in Murcia, but unlike everywhere else, it takes place there from the Wednesday to Sunday of the week after Easter Week, so if you miss Carnaval here in Catalunya you can always jump on a train heading south the week after Easter!