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Carnival: Modern times, Medieval Traditions

Jorge Sette By Jorge Sette Published on February 1, 2016

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This article was updated on April 18, 2017


This is not a happy post. So, if you wish, please stop reading right now and look for something more cheerful on Bookwitty to lift your spirits. Especially, if you are planning to spend Carnival in Brazil: this barbaric event which, I believe, started as a Christian tradition in the Middle Ages and was brought to our quieter shores by the unruly Portuguese in the XVI century.

The event used to be limited to 4 horrible days in February or March, ending on Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent, 40 days before Easter. But now it seems to be expanding, beginning, at least, one week before the official date. The cities in Brazil which are most famous for the tradition are Rio de Janeiro, Recife, Olinda and Salvador. Each with its own characteristic form of celebration. However, Carnival now seems to have spilled over the borders of those locations, contaminating the whole country.

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In Brazil, there are three very distinct types of Carnival. The most famous are the official parades: the one in Rio, in the Sambódramo, a specifically assigned area, where the samba schools compete against each other, picking a theme and parading down the Marquês de Sapucaí Avenue, flaunting all the related paraphernalia (floats, costumes, tune and lyrics – the samba enredo that goes with the theme - rehearsed choreographies, naked women, etc). The samba schools spend the whole previous year working on it. That can be fun to watch on TV or even take part in - if you do it a couple of times in your life (I’ve done both, never regretted it, but have had enough). The other official parade, allegedly the biggest public event in the world, is the Galo da Madrugada (The Dawn Rooster), which takes place in Recife, in the northeast of the country. Their typical music and dance are the frevo and the maracatu. The event attracts millions of people on the Saturday of Carnival.

The second kind of carnival takes place at the costume balls in private clubs or houses – where the parties are not very different from ancient Rome’s orgies. And, finally, the third and worst kind of carnival, in my cranky and humble opinion, is the one that takes over the streets of the big cities of the country, where hordes of young and rude people gather in blocks, dancing, drinking and getting stoned, causing discomfort, irritation and despair to the 90% of the population who just wish to enjoy the holidays having some quiet quality time with their families at home. The street blocks are getting wilder and bigger each year, and starting to happen in cities they did not occur before.

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The problem is city mayors, to gain popularity, pretend to ignore that Brazilian cities are complex, badly planned and difficult to navigate. As a consequence, as the barbaric crowds take over the main avenues, the non-participating citizens are kept hostages in their houses, their liberty to come and go restricted, their ears exposed to loud and coarse music from the street blocks that parade incessantly in their neighborhoods. Besides, the dancing and singing drunks don’t think twice before peeing in the streets and even engaging in explicit sexual activities in broad daylight, trying to convince themselves – and everyone else - they are having the time of their lives.

I only know two other Carnivals outside Brazil's: the one in London – in Notting Hill - which seems to be slightly more organized, since it’s restricted to a limited area, occurring in August; and the Mardi Gras in the USA, which I happened to come across during a business conference in St Louis, Missouri. It struck me as even more stupid, sexualized and alcoholic than the ones in Brazil. Young men and women show their naked private parts in exchange for cheap bead necklaces: scary!

This year’s carnival is Brazil threatens to be one of the darkest in recent history, as the country is on the verge of one of its worst economic crises and facing an explosive epidemic of Zika, the disease caused by a virus transmitted by the mosquito Aedes aegypti. Therefore, Brazilians will be dancing, drinking and fornicating in the unusual scorching heat of this year’s summer, mainly out of despair, to drown their fears and frustrations, in a futile attempt to forget about the ominous times that loom ahead.

I wish I lived in Denmark!

Jorge Sette.

Jorge Sette is Bookwitty's Regional Ambassador for South America. He represents the company, writing relevant content for the region, recruiting contributors, contacting partners and ... Show More

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