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Celebrating Carnival in the Caribbean

Throughout the Caribbean, Carnival is one of the biggest festivals.

By Lisa Mullins Bishop
Caribbean Edge Staff Writer

With its colorful costumes, elaborate floats, music competitions, food and drink, Carnival is a feast for all the senses. Originally celebrated the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, Carnival was a time of revelry before six weeks of Lenten fasting. During Lent Catholics gave up eating meat so "Fat Tuesday" or "Mardi Gras" was a farewell to meat or "carne-vale." Masquerade balls, music, and fun marked the occasion. While many islands still celebrate Carnival during the period preceding Ash Wednesday, other islands have opted to hold their Carnivals after Easter or even during the summer. No matter when it occurs, Carnival promises a good time for all.

All this pageantry takes much work and planning. Preparations for Carnival start well before the event--often a year before. A theme is selected, and all costumes, floats, and music are related to the theme. Music competitions, concerts, balls, King and Queen contests, and parades are all part of the festivities. Prizes are also awarded for best float, best costume, or King of Calypso, and each group tries to outdo its competition as they vie for the title of "Best."

To help you plan a trip to celebrate Carnival, here is a listing of the islands that celebrate Carnival with approximate dates. Keep in mind that Ash Wednesday and "Fat Tuesday" fluctuate each year. Fat Tuesday typically occurs 47 days before Easter Sunday. In 2005 this falls on February 8; next year, it will be February 28.

Like New Orleans's Mardi Gras and Rio di Janeiro's Carnival, Trinidad's Carnival is the best known of all the Caribbean Carnivals, attracting visitors from around the world. The French introduced Carnival to Trinidad in the late 1700s; today the festival is marked with elaborate masquerade balls and a street parade of costumed dancers and musicians.

While some events take place in the weeks before Ash Wednesday, the grandest parades and celebrations take place two days before Ash Wednesday. This year's Parade of Bands and J'Overt are Monday, February 7 and Tuesday, February 8.

Curacao's revelries begin on New Year's and continue until midnight the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. The highlight is Tumba Festival, a four-day music fest.

The Crucian Christmas Festival in late December is St. Croix's version of Carnival. Beauty pageants, food fairs, and concerts take place throughout the month of January. The finale is a grand parade held in late January.

The Bahamas start off the Carnival season with its Junkanoo held on January 1.

Aruba's festival runs for two months through January and February. This year's celebration began on Wednesday, January 5 and ends with the last Grand Night Parade on Tuesday, February 8, 2005.

St. Kitts begins its celebration 10 days after Christmas Eve with plenty of steel bands, calypso Monarch competitions, and parades.

St. Bart's holds Carnival just before Lent. The grand costume parade is scheduled this year for February 8. The parade ends with the burning of Vaval at Shell Beach

Jamaica began its first Carnival in April 1990 since then it has become an annual spring event with celebrations held in Kingston, Ocho Rios, and MoBay.

The island of St. Martin/Sint Maarten celebrates Carnival twice a year--once before Lent on the French side of the island and again after Easter on the Dutch side. The festival on the French side of St. Martin ends when Ash Wednesday begins. This year's St. Martin Grand Parade will be held on Sunday, February 6, 2005. After Easter, Dutch St. Maarten celebrates its 19-day-long Carnival with the opening of "Carnival Village," an area with numerous booths selling all types of food from conch to johnnycakes to barbecued chicken. Carnival continues with parades of floats, exotically costumed dancers, and bands. The largest of these is the Grand Carnival Parade. Other top Carnival attractions include the Caribbean Queen Pageant and the grand finale, a Jump Up led by King Momo, the straw figure who reigns over Carnival. The end of Carnival is marked by the burning of King Momo, who then, according to local legend, takes the village sins with him, leaving the island pure.

In the Cayman Islands, Carnival is known as Batabano and takes place in late April or Early May. Mas' (Masquerading) Bands, steel bands, and floats are just part of the fun. This year's dates are May 5-8.

St. Thomas's month-long Carnival begins in April and ends at the beginning of May.

If you are visiting the Caribbean in the summer, here are some Carnivals you won't want to miss.

Antigua's 10-day festival is an annual event in late July/early August. This year's Carnival, which celebrates emancipation, begins July 23 and ends on August 2. Music fills the air as calypso musicians compete for the title of Calypso Monarch and steel bands perform in the Panorama Steel Band Competition. The spectacular Parade of Bands is not to be missed.

On the island of St. John in the USVI, Carnival takes the form of the St. John Festival, a month-long celebration that begins at the end of May and continues through the 4th of July. Traditional parades, pageants, concerts, and cultural fairs are all part of the fun. The Festival opens with the Festival Ball, followed by the Pan-O-Rama concert and minifair the next day. Other events scheduled for the weekends include the popular Calypso Festival, a food fair in Cruz Park, the coronation of Miss St. John, and plenty of boat races. The annual Festival Mix is a celebration of reggae, rhythm and blues, and soca. The week before the July 4th holiday the festival village, featuring music, food, drink, and lots of vendors, opens. Here, visitors can listen to a variety of music from reggae and soca to steel-pan band and R&B. Festivities continue on Cultural Day (Emancipation Day) July 3. Elaborately costumed marchers make their way through the streets during the annual parade, and fireworks mark the close of the festival.

The biggest summer Carnival is Barbados's Crop Over, a five-week festival held every July. This event has its roots in the eighteenth-century. In the 1780s, the island of Barbados was the largest producer of sugar in the world. At the end of the sugar cane harvest with the "crop over," the island's inhabitants held a huge festival to celebrate their hard work in bringing in the crop. The event continued until the 1940s when it was discontinued. In 1974, the Crop Over festival was resurrected. The Crop Over festival is one of Barbados's largest festivals. Indeed it is so big that it culminates with Kadooment Day, a national holiday, on the first Monday in August. The Grand Kadooment is held on Kadooment Day. Elaborately costumed bands parade along the streets accompanied by the sounds of calypso. The designer with the best costume is named Designer of the Year. At the end of the parade route, there is more music, food, and fun. The festival ends with a huge fireworks display.

Dominican Republic
Puerto Rico
St. Barts
St. Croix
St. John
St. Kitts & Nevis
St. Lucia
St. Maarten
St. Martin
St. Thomas
Turks & Caicos
Virgin Gorda