Carnival In Catalonia And The Valencian Community
Many of us think about Brazil, when the word carnival is mentioned, however here, there are a plethora of fantastic carnivals, that are only a short plane hop away, if you’re based somewhere in Europe. In Catalonia, during carnival you could easily see giants around, if you go to Solsona, you’ll see donkeys hanging from the bell tower – but don’t worry, they are only stuffed donkeys!
In the Valencian Community, one of the most famous carnivals is the Vinaros Carnival, which although we can’t be entirely sure of its exact origin, there are town records which state that in 1871 there was a costume dance held at that time. The photos featured in this article are predominantly of the Vinaros Carnival of 2014. Much of this feature focuses on the history of the carnival in Catalonia, which is entirely separate to Valencia, as you’re probably aware. This is because there is more documentation available regarding its history, however today, if you visit some towns in the Valencian Community, you can also enjoy a great carnival.
Carnival-Carnestoltes or Carnaval
If you are over here for carnival time, you will see numerous posters that refer to it also as Carnestoltes, and Carnaval. Carnestoltes is the king of the carnival, and don’t forget that the word carnival actually originates from the words caro (meat or flesh) and vale (say goodbye) – so of course, carnival was that big blow-out before the abstemious period of Lent.
The King Carnestoltes opens the carnival, giving permission to have fun without limitation during carnival time, however by the end of it he is condemned to death, and is burnt publicly at the grande finale of the carnival.
Carnival In Catalonia-A Centuries Old Tradition
Although it has evolved in various ways, carnival has been celebrated for centuries. It started way back in the 15th century, and is still going strong in the 21st century. Of course during Franco’s time, things were different, but now it has come back with a vengeance!
It has changed with the times and although new symbols have been adopted, the main traditions still exist. This includes music, dancing, masks, an abundance of food and drink, occupation of the streets, satire, fights between people in grotesque attire and provocation. If the Carnival in Catalonia had to be summed up in one word it would have to be debauchery. In an area bursting at the seams with festivals and fiesta, the Carnival is the very paradigm of celebration. It is a break from everyday life that is like no other, and those who do not normally partake in other festivities, can often be found to be the first ones strapping on their masks and hitting the streets come Carnival time.
The same saying that you may have heard about general partying can be applied to carnival – the saying, as I know it, for partying is – What Goes On Tour Stays On Tour – and this is so true for carnival, and also other fiestas here!
Over the six centuries that the carnival has existed here, new symbols and practices have been adopted, as it has kept evolving. It is important that it has done this as, apart from the age old traditions, the Carnival is effectively a mirror that reflects the society surrounding it. Its roots were as a religious celebration, that included many beliefs and behaviours, which simply wouldn’t be adhered to in modern society, so if it hadn’t evolved with the times, the tradition may have been at risk of dying out entirely.
The Catalonia Carnival was celebrated in early winter, during what was described as the ‘passage of dead time’ where autumn has transformed entirely into winter. It now takes place after the December solstice, when the sun has regained some power and days have become ever so slightly longer.
Like A Bear Re-Awakening After Hibernation
At this point the community is already looking forward to the dawning of a new spring, and the carnival helps it on its way, rousing it from its long slumber, with a cacophony of fire and noise that takes place. A good comparison is with the bear, who is re-awakening after his hibernation. Several ancient, sacred practices live on in the form of manifestations of a folkloric kind during these winter festivities, much like a bear re-awakening.
Prime examples of this are the masks hitting the ground, the demons chasing the maidens, the people adorned with fire horns and, in the mountain carnivals, those that are dressed up in skins and bells.
Romans And Christianity
The Romans held winter festivals that were passages of transgression and inversion, and these contained elements that still exist in today Carnival. Examples of these are the inversion of the social roles taken by owners and slave, the
predominance of women, the drunkenness and the costumes. When Christianity came along, however, it became a time for debauchery on a scale that had never seen before, as it was seen as a last chance to let rip, before the 40 days of Lent rolled around. This run up to Easter started as the Carnival ended.
Of course one of the most important Carnival traditions is the wearing of the mask. This symbolises hiding one’s identity, so you can let loose and act in accordance with the morals of the Carnival. The mask gave (and gives) you carte blanche to embrace the music, the dancing, the drinking or take part in the food fights where the horribly dressed flung oranges, flour, sweets and vegetables at each other with gay abandon.
Another major tradition is that of satire. This began life as oral jeers of a personal nature, which were addressed at the morals of the Carnival and the behaviour of those participating in it. This later evolved into political satire and made it into print. The Carnivals that were held during the 19th century were as full of conflict, as were the participants. During these times social conflicts, anti-clericalism, political criticism and new ideas would all be expressed in various shapes and forms. All this was coinciding with the transformation of the Catalan society and the way it was changing, from the old system to embrace capitalism.
With the arrival of industrialisation came a bourgeois carnival that consolidated the festival and turned it into an all out celebration, in which everyone joined in. It also served to highlight the differences between the social classes. This took the form of the rich trying their hardest to dazzle, and the poor trying in earnest not to appear so. While everyone danced and made merry, they very much stayed within their own social classes.
The poor made the most of being able to dress grotesquely, to hide the fact that these were their every day clothes, and this segregated Carnival is far removed from how carnival is celebrated today. These were Carnivals on an epic scale, however and towards the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, were when the grandest carnivals of all took place.
The 21st Century Carnival
There are still towns whose carnivals are in keeping with this grandiose age – Barcelona, Vilanova I la Geltrú and Reus being three of them. These carnivals look rich and opulent, but the difference is that they involve all the people, without the class separation that once occurred. Today social conflict is still expressed in satire and theatrical representations.
The modern Carnival has many of the remnants of the oldest carnival practices. After the prohibitions that were the trademark of the Franco regime, the Carnival fought back to be bigger and better than ever and took to the streets of a now democratic Catalonia. Throughout the region there is an abundance of both large and small carnivals, all rich in the tradition of costumes. There are the magnificent parades, the masks which have taken on a somewhat burlesque appearance over the years, the grand balls, the dancing, the eating, the drinking and the general melée.
While some areas previously mentioned have adopted the carnivals from a grander time, there are other town who have taken their carnivals down a much more contemporary route. Solsona is one such town which, since its carnival recuperated in 1971, has included such events in its celebrations as ‘Miss forastera de for a’, or Miss outsider from abroad, which is a dig at beauty pageants. Other modernist carnivals pay reference to liberty, as far as sexual orientation goes, and probably the best example of this is held at Sitges. The model of the Brazilian carnivals has also made an appearance, as while some carnivals boast elaborate costumes, the participants of others wear barely anything. In the words of the famous song “it doesn’t matter what you wear just as long as you are there”, and if you only catch one festival in a year, make it the unforgettable Catalonia Carnival, or choose one of the best that the Valencian Community has to offer!
This feature in no way favours the Valencian Community over Catalonia, or vice versa, at all, as this year I spent carnival time in Vinaros, which is part of the Valencian Community. However earlier this year, I also wrote a feature about some of the best carnivals in Catalonia – but once again, these are only some, and this is not a definitive article – but if you’re curious, just click on best carnivals in Catalonia and check out the ones I chose and why!