“All things that are serious are barred.” So Macrobius writes in the Saturnalia. The iconic tome celebrates the ancient Roman festival that honored the god Saturn. The seven-day fest allowed slaves temporary freedom to say and do as they pleased. Slaves and the Roman elite would exchange clothes and spend the days in drunken revelry. This ancient tradition is the root of Carnival, the modern fest that celebrates debauchery in all its forms.
The word carnival probably originated from the latin carnem levare (to remove meat): before Lent—a period of fast, prayer, penitence and sacrifice—observant Catholics were allowed to indulge in pleasures—such as eating meat on Fridays—that were restricted during the month-long pre-Easter purge.
Carnival culture has come a long way since Macrobius’s time, with many different adaptations depending on the countries in which it is practiced. While some sort of Carnival celebration can be found on nearly every continent, we’ve narrowed down our list to our three favorite places to enjoy it in 2022. So, go ahead, mask up and get ready to revel!
Carnival Viareggio 2022, February 12th-March 5th
In Italy, the queen of Carnival is Venice, with its elegant masks and opulent costumes. But there are other fests in the Southern European nation. Carnival Viareggio, in Tuscany, is a lesser-known alternative to the touristy Venetian version. It celebrates rebellion and debunks high-brow culture, making it one of our favorites.
In 1873, a group of young rich bourgeois met around the tables of the Casino Cafè and decided to celebrate carnival with a parade of carriages. While fun was a part of it, they also wanted to protest against the increase in taxes. Thus, Carnival Viareggio was born. Since that time, Carnival Viareggio has been an annual festival that allows participants to exhibit dissatisfaction against the political establishment.
Elaborate floats featuring sculpted paper maché masks parade down Viareggio’s promenade, which runs more than three miles along the coastline. Mechanics, designers, welders and others work day and night to create these extraordinary pieces of art. Many of the characters depicted come from the Italian Commedia dell’arte while others are satirical versions of international celebrities and political figures.
The most famous mask, created in 1931 by futurist artist Uberto Bonetti, is Burlamacco, a clown with a red-and-white checkered suit. Since then, it has been the mascot of the carnival. Keep your eye out for him as you join friendly revelers dancing and singing in the streets! This year the central themes of the carnival include climate change, gender equality and getting out and about after the pandemic.
Las Palmas de Gran Canaria Carnival 2022, February 11th-March 6th
With more than five centuries of history behind it—including resistance to the Franco dictatorship—Carnival in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria is one of the biggest celebrations on the Spanish social calendar.
Color, music and rhythm are the watchwords. Carnival on this island is a dazzling spectacle and the true stars of the show are the elaborate and stunning costumes, known as “fantasía,” which include intricate designs, colorful feathers, glittering sequins and sparkling stones! Everyone dances the batucada (a kind of samba) until dawn.
The festival includes multiple pageants and events as well: the Carnival Queen Gala, the Drag Queen Gala (where 17 candidates participate in a drag queen competition with no restrictions on gender or sexual orientation), and the Murgas contest. The last is a battle-of-the-bands type competition with satirical songs that make fun of the government and society.
At the end of the three-week fest, a cardboard sardine is carried by a funeral procession (with people in costumes) to the beach. The sardine is then burned and fireworks mark the final celebrations.
Mardi Gras 2022, February 17th-March 1st
You can’t have Mardi Gras without New Orleans. The Louisiana city, synonymous with voodoo and sin, is a pleasure factory year-round but during the two weeks before Lent, all bets are off.
The carnival balls were established here in the 1700s but the state of Louisiana declared Mardi Gras a legal holiday only in 1875. And it’s been raucous ever since.
The spirit of New Orleans Mardi Gras can be described as a mixture of centuries-old Creole traditions, jazz, bright colors and drinking, lots and lots of drinking (New Orleans is one of the only places in the United States that lets you drink on the street with an open container. Even during the day).
Most visitors head to the French Quarter, New Orleans’ old town where parades run up and down Bourbon Street, Chartres Street and beyond (St. Charles Avenue, outside the Quarter, is where the main parade happens). Floats promenade down these picturesque narrow avenues with their wrought-ironed homes while drunken revelers throw cheap colorful beads at any woman willing to bare her breasts. But it’s not all sophomoric. Talented young musicians play jazz for free and the locals are some of the friendliest people you’ll find in the south.
Every year, debutantes around Louisiana live in anticipation to be crowned Queen of Mardi Gras. The queen has a float of her own as well as a crown and scepter. All this ends on Ash Wednesday, when people head to church and throw away the remains of their colorful king cakes.
It’s all part of that carnival magic. Until next year!