Our Roots in Carnival | Jamaican Rice & Peas Recipe

History of Carnival

Farewell to the flesh/meat.

While some believe Carnival originates from pagan rites of spring held by the ancient Romans and Greeks, Carnival is known to most as a Christian festive season traditionally recognized in countries with a large Catholic presence. It's normally celebrated around the world during February and March, culminating with the largest parties in the world the Monday and Tuesday before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.

Since Lent is a solemn religious practice that involves fasting and abstaining from luxuries and pleasures of the flesh, like meat, sweets, soda, alcohol, parties, music, and dancing, for 40 days until Easter (in commemoration of the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert) Carnival is the last period to indulge in hedonistic behaviors with no concern for consequences.

Thousands of revelers set aside their everyday lives to crowd their local streets or come together in large stadiums, like in Rio de Janeiro's Samba Drome, to celebrate at massive parades and street parties where elaborate costumes and masks are worn. People also indulge in excessive consumption of alcohol, foods, and sexual inhibitions are lowered.

Carnival may also include:

  • Mock battles such as food fights

  • Expressions of social satire

  • Mockery of authorities

  • Costumes of the grotesque body

  • Depictions of disease and gleeful death

  • A general reversal of everyday rules and norms

Some cultures use Carnival as a method of empowering themselves in spite of social conflicts. Despite the difference in social status, Carnival brings all communities together where everyone wears "masks" that differ from their typical identity in society to connect through performance art and satire.

Origins of Caribbean Carnival

Based in colonialism and religious conversion, Carnival originated with Italian Catholics in Europe, later spreading to the Spanish and French. In the late 18th century, an influx of French settlers brought the tradition of the Fat Tuesday Mardi Gras masquerade party tradition when they colonized and brought enslaved people from West Africa to Trinidad and Tobago, Dominican Republic, Dominica, Haiti, Martinique, Puerto Rico, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and other Caribbean islands.

Historians believe the first "modern" Caribbean Carnival originated in Trinidad and Tobago in the 18th century with a new cultural tradition called Canboulay–a harvest festival culminating after the labor-intensive process where slaves were forced to march from plantations to harvest burnt sugar cane. In the evening, they were allowed to sing, dance, drum, stick fight, and light torches in celebration of the harvest.

After the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, the Canboulay and Mardi Gras masquerade evolved into the modern form of Carnival where it evolved into a emancipation celebration festival for former indentured laborers and freed slaves who were banned from participating in the masquerade carnival events. It became a celebration of freedom, resistance, and pride through African-inspired music, dress, and dance.

“Canboulay is basically a ceremony symbolising cane-burning that Africans of Trinidad devised to celebrate their ‘freedom from slavery’.” ~Jacob Delworth Elder

Revelers would gather to sing Kaiso music to vent their feelings about their ex-masters while acting out satirical scenes depicting the white elite's tyrannical and oppressive behavior. The British upper classes and authorities disapproved of the festival, who considered such behavior undignified, but it was popular with the bulk of the free population on the island. Carnival was often marred by clashes between groups of revelers carrying sticks and lighted torches and the police. The Canboulay Riots in 1881 between Afro-Creole revelers and police was the most violent clash for the right to peacefully celebrate.

Watch: Trinidad Carnival, 1957

Today, masks, costumes, music, dancing, and raucous behavior remain central to Carnival celebrations throughout the Caribbean.

Jamaican Rice & Peas Recipe

Also known as the 'Jamaican Coat of Arms,' did you know serving rice and peas on Sundays dates back to the days of slavery? In the 1700s, slaves were only allowed Sundays off from their backbreaking work. The best foods were served – chief among them was rice and peas.

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