The History of Carnival starts thousands of years ago. The festival was originally a pagan ritual meant to sweet-talk the gods of nature for good weather for planting and reaping a bountiful harvest.
Pre-Christian Romans saw late winter as a time for cleansing the soul and chasing away the unfavorable spirits of the dark and cold in order to be ready for a fresh beginning in the spring. During this ritual of preparation, the Romans would eat and drink in over abundance. They would make offerings to their dead relatives as well as to the gods.
The early Jews also celebrated a similar spring festival that was later merged with the fasting of Passover. When the early Christian church was unable to stop these annual festivities, the priests adapted them to suit the churches new teachings.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent and a period of repentance, calculated on the calendar to fall 40 days before Easter, (or Passover on the Jewish calendar). In 1091 AD, The Catholic church declared that Lent begin at the end of the existing three-day pagan feast in February. Eventually everyone forgot the original intention of the spring celebrations, and the days preceding Lent became simply a time to go a little wild.
Italians were the first to celebrate the modern idea of Carnival. They dressed in elaborate costumes, hid their identity behind masks, and danced in the streets, eating and drinking vast quantities of wine, liquor and food. These celebrations became famous throughout Europe and spread to France, Spain and Portugal.
(The above picture is an early American drawing of a fattened ox being led to the center of town for the carnival celebration feast in New Orleans.)
The history of Carnival continued when European explorers began to colonize the Americas, and they continued to celebrate the customs of Carnival.
In the early 1800, African slaves, Arawak Indian slaves, and indentured servants from China, and India, did most of the labor on the Caribbean islands. Their customs were eventually incorporated into European colonists’ traditions of Carnival.
Masks and costumes were worn to ward off evil spirits or placate those that must be charmed into granting good luck. Music and dance was performed to petition the gods of nature to grant fertility and health to the people, plants and animals.
Many parts of the New World welcomed Carnival as an annual springtime celebration. In the United States, the most well known festival is Louisiana’s Mardi Gras, a flamboyant celebration of Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. A Carnival celebration influenced by French colonists, native America Indians, and African slaves.
Barbados, Jamaica, Granada, Trinidad, Dominica, Haiti, Cuba, St. Thomas and Netherlands Antilles are a few of the Caribbean Islands that were known to put on elaborate Carnivals.
Before 1900, Dutch colonists to the ABC islands would hold pre-Lenten celebrations privately in their homes.
But, the history of Carnival traditions in Aruba continued to grow in the 20th and 21st centuries.
In 1915, when the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Refinery opened on Curacao, a public Carnival was held an all three islands to celebrate. But it did not become an annual celebration.
In the 1940's, the immigrants from Trinidad who came to work in Aruba's Lago Oil Refinery brought with them a new interest in the festival celebration known as Carnival and various groups and clubs would have Carnival festivities throughout the month leading up to lent.
In 1954, the Central Carnival Committee Aruba (CCCA) was formed to coordinate all Aruba Carnival activities. The first Children’s Parade took place two years later on Aruba.
Today all three islands host large Carnivals that draw huge crowds and fill every hotel room. Colorful parades and all-night dances take over the streets. Carnival Queens represent the antique deities of Mother Earth and preside over the Grand March held on the last Sunday of Carnival season. Elections are held t o select Princes and Jesters, who are responsible for the safekeeping of the city keys.
Perhaps the most important events are the annual completions held to select the original music that will be Carnival’s road march theme song. The lead singer of the winning band becomes the island’s reigning Carnival King.
The celebrations end in a grand finale on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, with a huge parade, fireworks, and the burning of the Rei Momo, an effigy representing all that is evil.
Today, the celebrations are more for fun, than spiritual, but, whatever the reason you celebrate Carnival, may the history of Carnival live on for generations to come.