It was “Carnaval” time in Portugal last week. Yes, that is how they spell it here in Portugal, where every town and city around the country was celebrating with music, dancing and parades. The carnival tradition supposedly originated hundreds of years ago in Italy. Catholics were not supposed to eat meat during the season of Lent which begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts until Easter Sunday. So, they began the custom of holding a lively costume party festival on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. They called the festival “carne vale” which means “put away the meat.”
Here in Portugal, the tradition goes back to the Middle Ages. The oldest known carnival celebration started in the thirteenth century in the city of Torres Vedras, about 43 kilometers (27 miles) northwest of Lisbon.
Often groups in small villages all around a larger town will get together to create a float or parade group around a theme. Movies, popular bands and local sport clubs are frequent themes. Sometimes the floats have highly political messages, with signs or costumes satirizing current issues or poking fun at well-known government personalities.
Maybe Celtic origins?
The village of Podence in the Tras os Montes region of far northeastern Portugal is known for its unique colorful costumes and the bizarre antics of the revelers, called “Caretos.”
Men from the village and surrounding area are clad in home-made woolen costumes in red, green and yellow. They wear red masks made of wood or leather. They hang metal rattles and bells from their belts and often carry a wooden staff.
These “Caretos” go round the village shaking their rattles and bells at any women they find. Supposedly it’s all about spring, fertilization and new growth after the long winter. The festival in Podence and Macedo de Cavaleiros nearby, has been designated as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Some historians believe the festival is linked to ancient Celtic fertility rites.
My village celebrated with a carnival dance “Baile Carnaval” in the local association hall. There was plenty of traditional Portuguese music, which sounds to me a lot like polka tunes or the kind of Mexican “rancheras” I was used to in New Mexico. A lot of local people showed up and danced enthusiastically or joined in the conga line if they couldn’t find a partner.
The nearby town of Ferreira do Zezere held “bed races”, where teams competed in pushing a steel framed bed on wheels up and down the main street. One member perched on the mattress and clung to the headboard for dear life while team mates pushed and hauled the unwieldy bed down the street, trying not to crash into the sidewalk or the onlookers.
In the US, the carnival tradition is observed in New Orleans as “Mardi Gras” or Fat Tuesday. The days-long festival in Rio de Janeiro is world famous for its samba bands. My nearby town of Tomar also spread the festivities over several days with parades for children and night time concerts in the main square. On Tuesday, the actual carnival day, many businesses observed a holiday as the streets became choked with onlookers watching the parades.
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