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Culture Focus

What Makes Brazilian Carnival So Special

Photo by Quinten de Graaf on Unsplash

Glitter, costumes, beer and loud music – magic takes over Brazil during Carnival. Our most famous holiday is certainly popular for a reason. Before moving to the United States, I made a mental list of all the things I would miss about Brazil, and Carnival was high on the list. Carnival truly has the power to bring together all kinds of people and its energetic spirit convinces millions of people to go out in the streets and party together. But what even is Carnival in the first place? What does this holiday represent and how is it celebrated in Brazil?

The Meaning and a Little Bit of History

         My earliest memory of Carnival is decorating paper masks sometime around 1st or 2nd grade. I am sure that one of my teachers attempted more than once to explain the origins of Brazil’s most famous holiday, but I was probably too preoccupied with my butterfly costume and purple glitter to register what any of them said. Even though I have excitedly awaited and celebrated Carnival for the last few years, the question of how this holiday even came into existence never really crossed my mind.

         I may not remember what my middle school teacher told us about Carnival’s history but the fact that I remember decorating paper masks is actually more than enough to understand the purpose of this holiday. Carnival is a time for people to free themselves from their usual identity – thus the masks – and be able to shamelessly do whatever they want to do. The reason for that, as I found out with some research, is to release all immoderation and extravagance before the Lent, a 40-day period of religious preparation for Easter. The relationship between Carnival and Christianity, however, does not carry that much meaning in Brazil – at least not in Carnival’s popular form. Truthfully, the spirit of Carnival has become such an institution of its own that its technicalities hardly matter to the public.

         Similar forms of Carnival take place in other countries, such as Spain, Italy, France, Bolivia and Colombia. New Orleans also has its own version of it. What makes Brazilian Carnival perhaps more distinctive than the others is the fact that it was born out of a Portuguese tradition heavily influenced by African culture. Even Brazilian Carnival’s unique music (e.g., samba, marchinha de Carnaval) was born out of a mix of African rhythms and Portuguese music genres.

Samba Schools

         Samba schools are organizations devoted to practicing and performing samba at the Carnival parades. The development of samba schools through the last century has turned the Brazilian Carnival parades into massive and long-awaited events. They are not only recognized for their dancing and drumming, but also for their elaborate costumes and decorated parade floats. The parades happen at special venues called Sambadrome and are all broadcast on national TV. Unfortunately, the tickets to these parades can be quite expensive, which generally limits access to these events to wealthier people.

Street Carnival

         Even though street Carnival is theoretically not the most traditional form of Carnival, it has become a tradition of its own, especially in more urban cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. It is nearly impossible to live in São Paulo and ignore the Carnival celebrations. The streets are filled with beer sellers and people in crazy costumes. The subways are taken over by the celebrations as well, creating interesting contrasts such as  a man in his work suit sitting beside a girl dressed like a fairy.

Many of my craziest stories come from the times I’ve been at bloquinhos, which are literally translated to “little blocks” (block parties). They consist of several street blocks being closed down for people’s circulation only. Trio elétricos – a kind of truck with a high-power sound system and a stage on top – lead the crowds of people from the beginning to the end of the blocos. The size of bloquinhos varies a lot, going all the way from a few dozen people to tens of thousands. Their styles are also quite different: you can find blocos that stick with more traditional music and others dedicated to one music genre like Brazilian funk, rock and pop.

The bloquinhos grow more and more every single year. They have become one of the most popular choices for celebrating Carnival given they usually are free entrance.. That being said, bloquinhos certainly require a lot of carefulness and either love or indifference towards crowds. Even so, the diversity of bloquinhos allows for people with all kinds of taste to find one that they can enjoy.

I won’t deny it, Carnival certainly has to do a lot with excessive amounts of glitter and five too many beers. However, it has far more to do with being able to celebrate with family and friends without any type of judgement or shame. It is the one day of year when there are no negative reactions to just being yourself, and it  rewards its celebrators with an incomparable sense of freedom. The reason it is the favorite holiday of many Brazilians – myself included – is because most of all Carnival is a celebration of the very act of freely and authentically celebrating life.