Throughout Spain, Carnival has evolved over the centuries from a very rural event with straw effigies paraded through the streets in a cart and public masked dances in the village square. The popularity of Carnival grew, becoming an excuse for people of different social classes to mingle and, perhaps, indulge in behaviors that might otherwise be deemed questionable, if not scandalous. The custom of wearing ornate masks also developed to protect the identities of carnival participants, some created to resemble recognisable faces, others being pure fantasy to depict whatever image the wearer wanted.
With the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in 1923, Carnival entered a period of strict constraint which forbade masked parades and mimicking religious, military and civil authorities. These prohibitions were increased after the Civil War in 1939 and remained in place until the end of Franco’s dictatorship. Since then, there has been a revival of carnival festivities based on those established during the 18th century and from more ancient times, to arrive at today’s mix of rural and urban customs, including spectacular processions with people dressed in elaborate costumes and humorous or satirical masks, street parties and traditional dances. The biggest and most famous Carnivals take place in Cadiz and the Canary Islands, in particular Tenerife which attracts people from all over the world.
The Origins of Carnival
It is thought that the ancient festivals of Saturnalia (a Roman solstice festival in honour of the agricultural god Saturn) and Lupercalia (a pre-Roman pastoral festival to honour Lupercus, the god of shepherds) were the roots of Carnival.
There are also speculations as to the origins of the word ‘Carnival’. The most popular being a link with the Italian word ‘carne’ (meat), deriving from the words ‘carne levare’ meaning ‘to remove meat’ or ‘carne vale’ meaning ‘farewell to meat’ – a reference to the excesses that led up to the abstinence of rich foods such as meat, dairy, fats during Lent. The word carne may also be translated as flesh, so suggesting carne vale as ‘a farewell to the flesh’, a phrase embraced by certain Carnival participants who encourage letting go of your former or everyday self and embracing the carefree nature of the festival.
Others argue a link with the word ‘carrus’ (car), a reference to the parade floats, and deriving from ‘carrus navalis’, the Roman festival where the image of Isis was carried to the sea-shore to bless the start of the sailing season. The festival consisted of a masked parade following an adorned wooden boat, symbolic of the floats of the later Carnival floats.