Caribbean Sailing: Celebrating Carnival

It happens every time during your Caribbean sailing charter. You are relaxing onboard in a peaceful, idyllic anchorage – the crystal clear turquoise water gently lapping against the hull- when suddenly, the warm tropical breezes lure you ashore like a siren song with the sound of a party! Every year, the Caribbean plays host to hundreds of different parties ranging from religious celebrations, music festivals, fishing tournaments, sporting competitions to sailing regattas. No matter where you go, a party in paradise can almost always be a part of your Caribbean sailing vacation. The greatest party, however, is the annual Carnival celebration. Basically a street party, it is a fun mixture of party, theater, art and folklore tradition. For each island, the annual Carnival is big business, and preparations for the next one begin almost the day after the last one ends.

The history of Carnival celebrations began hundreds of years ago in Italy where Catholics held wild costume festivals right before Lent. Since they were not supposed to eat meat during Lent, the festival got the name, “Carnevale”, which means “to put away meat.” The famous Carnival celebrations eventually spread to other Catholic countries, including France, Spain and Portugal. As Catholic Europeans set up colonies and entered the slave trade, Carnival took root in the New World as well.

Today, Carnival celebrations are found throughout the islands. They have been transformed, however, from those original Italian costume festivals to something distinctly Caribbean that differs from island
to island. The Caribbean Carnival is a blending together of many European cultures, as well as African dance and music. Important to the celebration of the Caribbean Carnival is the African traditions of parading in costumes and masks and moving in circles through villages in order to bring good fortune, heal problems and calm angry spirits. Carnival is an important way for the people of the Caribbean to express their rich African cultural traditions by creating elaborate masks and costumes. It takes months and a lot of energy and creativity to come up with a concept and develop costumes for the dancers to depict a common theme.
When Carnival first began, it was celebrated from December 26th until Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday). Still using this traditional time, Trinidad has the largest carnival, with daily events for four weeks leading up to Shrove Tuesday. The last two days are the frenzied culmination of all the parades, the largest floats and the final competitions to decide the winners of various contests.

Other islands hold their carnivals at different times so as not to clash and allow people to enjoy several celebrations during the year. If you are planning a Caribbean sailing vacation, check with each island’s tourist office to get a schedule of events. It is great fun to plan a charter around Carnival. Although each island may hold Carnival during different times of the year, there are some common elements to the celebration. Many of the islands will use Carnival as the perfect occasion to commemorate other events in the island’s past. All will include elaborate costumes (Mas) worn by many people. Colorful floats and street parades (Pan) are accompanied by lots of music (especially Calypso) and bands, and there is usually an elected King and Queen.

Following is a glimpse of Carnival celebrations throughout the islands:

British Virgin Islands
The biggest event in the BVI, this Carnival goes by two names. Some locals refer to it as the, “August Festival”, while others call it the, “Emancipation Festival.” It begins July 1st and ends August 31st. This annual celebration marks the 1834 Emancipation Act which abolished slavery in the British West Indies. All the islands celebrate with events taking place across the region, although most celebrations are held in Road Town, Tortola. Visitors are in a for treat including live music, dancing, street performers, parties, parades and food and drink booths laced with a distinct Caribbean flavor. A hotly contested calypso competition leads to the coveted crowning of the Calypso King. There is also a competition for a festival Queen. Events not to miss include the food booths set up near the waterfront in Road Town; the children’s pageants; calypso, reggae and costume competitions; bands on huge sound trucks cruising the waterfront accompanied by crowds of dancers; steel bands on floats; all night parties and the grand costume parade.

St. Martin/Sint Maarten
This island is unique because it has a French and Dutch side-both of which are extremely distinct from one another. The way in which Carnival is celebrated is also distinct, depending on which side of the island you are on. Since French St. Martin is considered a part of Guadeloupe, see below. Carnival in Dutch Sint Maarten begins with the Balloon Jump-Up after Easter and lasts until April 30th, the birthday of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. The Balloon Jump-Up celebrates the opening of Carnival Village, an area two blocks from Front Street that houses more than 100 food booths. The Jump-Up parades are a top Carnival attraction with their brightly costumed dancers, floats and live bands. The largest of the processions is the Grand Carnival Parade, which features elaborately dressed Carnival dancers winding along a four-mile route. In between parades, spectators are entertained by steel drum bands from other Caribbean islands. Competitions (especially Calypso competitions) are an integral part of the festivities. A traditional art form of the Caribbean, Calypso competitions test the improvisational and narrative skills of a solo performer. The winner goes up against the previous years’ Calypso King or Queen in a battle for the new title. The day after a new Calypso monarch is crowned, a Jump-Up Parade called Jouvert (pronounced Jou-vey) begins at 4 a.m. and lasts until sunrise. The grand finale to Carnival is the Last Lap Jump-Up, lead by King Momo, the straw figure who reigns over Carnival. The burning of King Momo signals the end of Carnival. Local folklore is that he takes the sins of the villages with him, thus leaving the island pure.

St. Barths
St. Barths is one of the three countries in the world where Carnival actually ends at the end of Ash Wednesday. It officially begins the Saturday preceding Ash Wednesday, but unofficially starts the day after New Year’s Day. During this unofficial time, the Carnival associations begin rehearsals in the street and people spend their time making the beautiful floats for the parades. The official start of Fat Saturday (Samedi Gras) is an all night dance party. The king of Carnival is King Vaval – a giant mannequin. He is featured with revelers and floats on Fat Sunday (Dimanche Gras) when people enjoy Jump-Ups during the day and all night parties. There are parties every night during the official celebration of Carnival. On Fat Monday (Lundi Gras), everyone dresses in red for the day of the red devils. The costumes are beautiful works of art decorated with glitter and reflective silver. Finally, Ash Wednesday is the day everyone dresses in black and white for the funeral of King Vavel. Festivities continue until 7 p.m. when the straw figure of King Vavel is burned, marking the end of Carnival.

St. Kitts and Nevis
Carnival on St. Kitts and Nevis officially begins on Christmas Eve and ends on New Year’s Day. The unofficial start occurs months before with costume making and float building. The Carnival season consists of many different activities such as beauty pageants, street jamming, calypso shows and competitions, masquerades, mocko jumbies and other traditional folklore.

The Antigua Carnival dates back to August 1, 1834, when slavery was abolished and locals went to the streets to joyfully express their celebration of freedom. The celebration continued until 1957, when it was officially declared Carnival. Antigua’s Carnival always takes place around the last week of July through the first week of August. The ten days of revelry includes marches, parades, Jump-Ups, shows, and dances to the beat of Calypso. The Antigua Carnival is a great time for visitors on a Caribbean sailing charter to immerse themselves with the culture of this island. During Carnival, St. John teems with street performers, food and drink booths. Pan Ban- steel pan orchestras- are followed by dance troupes wearing intricate costumes. The lively event culminates with a massive road party called Jouvert, (meaning “day break”), where everybody is on their feet dancing to the beat of steel drums.

Carnival in Montserrat is celebrated between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The festival includes steel bands, Jump-Ups, King and Queen competitions, and parades. One of the highlights of Carnival is the calypso competition finals where performers dress up and act out their calypsos. Calypso is usually a social commentary about things that are going on in the island as well as feelings about the current government. There is usually a double entendre and the songs tend to be quiet risqué. The winner of the competition is awarded prizes and celebrity status on the island, and they will represent Montserrat in the inter-island competitions. Besides the calypso competition, Carnival also includes steel bands, sporting events, barbecues, and dancing contests.

Guadeloupe’s Carnival also finishes on Ash Wednesday. Rehearsals begin in January, with groups disguised in costumes dancing and singing in the streets. Carnival reaches its feverous pitch between Shrove Sunday and Ash Wednesday. Shrove Sunday begins with parades, dancing, costumes, masquerades and street parties. On Shrove Tuesday, pajama clad masqueraders dance throughout the day. On Ash Wednesday, Guadeloupe’s unique celebration of Carnival is apparent as revelers dressed up in black and white he and she wolves take to the streets. That evening, with people dancing and dining, Carnival comes to a close with the cremation of King Vaval. Midway between Carnival and Easter Sunday, Carnival is revived for one day at Mid-Lent Thursday, where revelers, depicting themselves as devils, dress up in red and black costumes.

Mas Domnik is held at the traditional pre-Lenten time. During the ten day celebration, there are lots of activities taking place around the island. It is a feast of calypso shows and street Jump-Ups. The opening parade kicks off Carnival. The Queen contestants, calypsonians, the most popular bands, people in sensay costumes, moko jumbies, cheerleaders and many more people parade through the streets in a kaleidoscope of colors encouraged by a huge crowd of onlookers. Throughout Carnival, there are calypso competitions, costume contests, street jams, sensay festivals and beauty pageants. On the two final days of Carnival, music, culture and people merge to celebrate with costumes, bands and parades. The final event takes place on Ash Wednesday with the burning of the Carnival King and the beginning of Lent.

Beginning in May and continuing throughout the summer with various events, Crop Over is Barbados’ biggest, loudest and best-loved festival. Dating back to the late 1700s and early 1800s, when Barbados was one of the biggest sugar producers in the world, the end of the sugar cane harvest was celebrated with big parties. Today, the celebration continues with more flamboyance and extravaganza. The event officially begins in early July with a ceremonial delivery of the last sugar cane harvest and the crowning of the Carnival King and Queen. The following five weeks is marked by a heady mix of live music (including tuk, calypso, soca and street bands), dancing, food and craft markets, cultural presentations and much more. The Pic-O-De-Crop is part of the Carnival celebrations and is a part of a fierce competition to pick the best calypso band. The best bands then compete against one another in a bid to win the honor of taking on the reigning Calypso Kings. This is a great community event. Carnival culminates with a parade called, “Grand Kadooment.” Costumed bands take to the streets for the final competition for “Designer of the Year” crown. Revelers dressed in elaborate costumes depicting various themes wind their way through the streets, dancing as DJs play the most popular music.

St. Vincent and The Grenadines
Vincy Mas, as Carnival has become known since 1977, was first celebrated as a pre-Lenten festival by French colonists in the late eighteenth century. The observance of Carnival as a celebration of the privileged class continued under the rule of Great Britain, who celebrated the four days preceding Ash Wednesday as their annual, “Masked Balls”. With the coming of freedom, the ex-slaves took Carnival to the streets introducing African cultural traditions. In 1872, the colonial authorities attempted to ban the celebration. On February 11, 1879, Vincentians decided that Carnival would be celebrated, ban or no ban. The people resisted the armed forces of the empire, leading to riots in the streets, and the St. Vincent Carnival Riots became part of the island’s history. The peoples’ festival continued to grow until 1973, when the Carnival Development Committee took charge to put resources into the planning and organization of the carnival. In 1976, the CDC decided to change the dates of the official celebration of Carnival, and the rest is history. Beginning the end of June, Vincy Mas today is a ten day festival of Pan (panorama), Calypso and Mas (costumes), where society becomes classless and non-racial. The streets of Kingstown become a hive of activity with around the clock excitement. Vincy Mas is filled with mirth and gaiety. The streets are filled with the constant hammering of DJ music blaring out of temporary bars. Various competitions, including costumed bands, Queen Shows (beauty pageants) and calypso are all part of the celebration. If you are on a Caribbean sailing charter, you will be overwhelmed by the riot of color, clash of music, display of talent and the teeming mass of humanity that overtakes the island during Vincy Mas.

Carnival is one of Grenada’s biggest annual festivals. Renowned for its color, creativity and unique cultural character, Carnival celebrations are held during the second week in August, just one week after Emancipation Day festivities. Although each parish has its own brand of traditional costume or mas, the main Carnival action is in the streets of St. George’s. Festivities begin in July with the opening of various calypso tents, where singers vie for a chance to compete in the National Calypso Monarch Competition. In early August, Carnival celebration gains momentum. Every night of the week, there are cultural presentations and calypso shows, while steel bands rehearse for the upcoming Panorama competition. Carnival week proceeds with the National Carnival Queen show, the Soca Monarch Finals, and the Panorama Steel Band Competition. Carnival Sunday brings the Dimanche Gras Show- featuring the Kings and Queens of the Fancy Mas Bands in competition for King and Queen of Carnival. From dawn on Carnival Monday, the streets of Grenada’s towns are filled with traditional masqueraders depicting Jab-Jabs (devils) and social commentaries of the highlights of the past year (Ole Mas). Spectators, and masqueraders alike dance in the streets to the sound of steel bands and popular music played by DJs. On Monday afternoon, the fancy or pretty bands appear on the streets as they make their way to the big stage for the fierce Band of the Year competition. The street party continues late into the evening as the Monday Night Mas Bands weave their way through the streets dancing and waving brightly colored fluorescent lights and continues until the early hours of Tuesday morning. On Carnival Tuesday, spectators and masqueraders again dance through the streets with the fancy bands. The party continues until midnight, when the official Carnival celebration ends.

Although the dates of the music competitions, Jump-Ups, food booths, beauty pageants, costume parades and others activities that make up the festivities vary from island to island, Carnival celebrations are held annually through the Caribbean. Even though each island may have its own twist to the event, it is an opportunity for the people of the Caribbean to express themselves artistically and socially. Carnival is a celebration of the sheer joy of life! Regardless of what your social status is or the color of your skin, everyone, including spectators, is a part of the celebration. No matter where you go, you do not need an elaborate festival to have a great time in the islands, but a Carnival celebration can be a fun part of your Caribbean sailing vacation.

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