top of page
Carnival Celebrations

The True Meaning of Carnival

The Caribbean Carnival is a global festival and celebration linked to freedom and the end of slavery.  Whilst we can be distracted by the magnificent colourful costumes, the captivating music and mesmerising dance, it is important to remember the history and cultural significance of these spectacular celebrations.   

Not only celebrated across the Caribbean, with each island hosting its own version of Carnival, Caribbean Carnivals are now celebrated around the world, with huge celebrations such as Totonto's Caribana in Canada, New York City's Labor Day Carnival and the Miami Carnival in the USA, and the Notting Hill Carnival in the UK, all of which are supporting and celebrating the history and culture of the celebrations originated in Trinidad and Tobago.

The history of Caribbean Carnival is much more complex than many realise, therefore, whether you are dancing and taking part in the celebrations or simply watching the spectacular event, it is important that you understand the culture behind the event and appreciate the reasons behind the costumes, the music and parades that you enjoy and the people you are paying tribute to.

The celebration begins with J'ouvert, meaning "day break" and the street parties associated with J'ouvert coincide with the emancipation from slavery in 1838.  Emancipation provided opportunities for slaves to participate in Carnival but to also embrace it as an expression of their new-found freedom.  Some theories indicate that J'ouvert traditions are expressed in remembrance of civil disturbances, therefore, participants are known to smear themselves in paint oil mud or powder to avoid being recognised.  J'ouvert originated in 1783 in Trinidad and Tobago, and slavery was ongoing during this time.  Whilst the French  plantation owners across the Caribbean hosted masquerade balls, the slaves created their own mini-carnival,  J'ouvert was later taken to the street following emancipation.  Today J'ouvert is one of the modern festivities that most reflects the origins of Carnival, especially in the masking and Canboulay processions.  Canboulay is a celebration of resistance, and re-enacts the  sugarcane harvest when slaves were forced to march through sugarcane plantations and put out fires, The canes were burnt before harvesting as a method of pest control.  Historically, Canboulay was a night time activity, however, today it is a torchlight procession with vibrant costumes accompanied with drumming, singing, chanting and dancing.

Costumes formed for Carnival are an important symbol of African tradition.   For example, the feathers used on headdresses demonstrates perseverance and the ability to rise above anything and to take flight into a spiritual journey.  Designing a costume is not as simple as throwing together some gems and hoping for the best, as the costumes are as diverse as the Islands, and also reflect the creativity of the Island.  Not only are the costumes elaborate, delicate and skilfully designed, they tell a story of a people who underwent unimaginable suffering to evolve free; free to celebrate their presence in a way that forces you to take notice.  

The history of the Caribbean Carnival goes back several centuries and involved multiple communities.  Even the celebration as a whole has its roots in religious conversion, colonialism and liberation.  Today, these celebrations have become a global phenomenon with people coming in from different countries to take part in them.




bottom of page