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A Great Reason to Party


by Jonathan van Bilsen


Carnival seems to be a global time for partying, dressing up and parading around neighbourhoods. I have been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, watched the floats in Rio and, as a child in the Netherlands, dressed in costume and danced with the best of them. I always assumed carnival originated as a last ditch effort to go crazy, prior to Lent, the forty days of fasting, leading up to Easter. Alas, that is not the case.

The historical roots of carnival trace back to ancient civilizations such as Egypt and Rome. Dating back to around 4000 BC, Egypt commemorated seasonal transitions with festivities resembling modern-day carnival. Following Alexander the Great's conquest, the Greeks absorbed and infused their religious beliefs into these celebrations.

Meanwhile, in Rome, Bacchanalian revelries honoured Bacchus, the god of wine, marked by excessive drinking, dancing, and feasting. These gatherings, characterized by uninhibited behaviour, involved masks and costumes and contributed to the allure of modern-day carnival parades and masked balls.

I found it interesting to learn how Carnival is celebrated around the world. For example, Santa Cruz has the biggest carnival in Spain. They hold a Queen of the Carnival pageant, where the contestants wear extravagant dresses made of satin, adorned with beads and feathers. Mogollones are open-air parties, where music is played and people crowd the streets.

Quebec has the distinction of hosting the third-largest Carnival festival in the world. Known as the Winter Carnival, it is always held in Quebec City, and is characterized by its official mascot, Bonhomme Carnaval, a snowman with a red beanie hat, a sash, and black buttons. The Carnival lasts 17 days, with a night parade every Saturday. The city is decorated with numerous ice sculptures during this time, and there is an annual 3 km ice canoe race.

New Orleans, of course, celebrates Mardi Gras, which tends to stretch the entire period from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday, but most people treat it as the final three-day period before Ash Wednesday.

The Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is held every year before Lent, and is considered the biggest carnival in the world, with two million people per day on the streets. The first carnival festival in Rio occurred in 1723.

Many have heard of the Venetian Ball which is part of the Carnival of Venice, famous throughout the world for its elaborate costumes and masks. It traces its origins to the middle ages, existing for several centuries, until it was abolished in 1797. The tradition was revived in 1979, and the modern event now attracts approximately 3 million visitors annually.

Wherever people gather, there is always an excuse for a good party.


Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. Watch his show, ‘Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel’, on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube.

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