Costumed revelers board a New Orleans streetcar and ride down St. Charles Avenue, waving banners, throwing beads, and shaking their rumps to the beat of a brass band. These are the Phunny Phorty Phellows—and their antics kick off the pre-Lenten celebrations.
Carnival is a worldwide phenomenon, an outburst of tradition and joy that engulfs locals while providing photogenic entertainment for travelers lucky enough to crash the party. It flourishes in New Orleans and other places that have strong Catholic or Orthodox religious traditions (the Fasnacht celebration in Basel, Switzerland, is a notable Protestant exception). Immigrants export Carnival with them: witness the celebration in Goa, India, a holdover from that community’s Portuguese rule, or the street festivals that have sprung up among the West Indian diaspora in New York and London.
Those familiar with photos of scantily clad partiers in Rio or Trinidad might not appreciate that the Carnival debauchery stems from religious roots. To gain converts, the early Christian church incorporated pagan practices, tying them to the period of abstinence known as Lent. The idea has always been to get your feasting and sinning out of the way, before the repentant 40-day Easter season begins on Ash Wednesday.
Carnival has also served as a way for those in the underclass to express their displeasure with the status quo. Satirical clothing, banners, and floats can be found at many Carnival celebrations; it’s no wonder that repressive regimes, such as Franco’s in Spain or the Communist regime of the former Soviet Union, discouraged or banned them.
“They are always subversive, because people are allowed to do things that are forbidden in real life,” says Cecile Duvelle, director of the Intangible Heritage Division at UNESCO, which protects cultural treasures and festivals like Carnival. It’s a “time of complete transgression,” as she puts it. “The King is not the king; you can joke about him. It’s a way to express irony, and criticism of power, in a festive way.”
Carnival has always been about spectators as much as participants. So should you find yourself at one of the following parties around this year’s Fat Tuesday (February 12), don’t be afraid to grab a mask and join in.