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Carnival: origin and evolution

The word carnival, derived from the Latin expression “carne levale,” began to become known around the 11th and 12th centuries and means “to remove the flesh,” that is, “abstention from the flesh” and is associated with the control of worldly pleasures.

Carnival: origin and evolution

Article available in: PT-BR ESP

Last update: 07/03/2023

By: Cláudia Verardi - Librarian at Fundação Joaquim Nabuco - PhD in Librarianship and Documentation,
Lara Nogueira - Monitor de la Fundação Joaquim Nabuco

The word carnival, derived from the Latin expression “carne levale,” began to become known around the 11th and 12th centuries and means “to remove the flesh,” that is, “abstention from the flesh” and is associated with the control of worldly pleasures.

In spite of being remembered only as a pagan feast, the period called Carnival marks the eve of Ash Wednesday, exactly the day when the abstention of meat begins (fasting of Lent). Thus, Carnival relates to the Lent, since it is the last chance to give vent to compulsions previous to the 40-day period of fasting and prayer before Easter. Christians often refrain from certain foods or activities that they like to practice as penance to prepare for Easter.

Carnival celebrations usually start on Saturday and extend until Ash Wednesday. Officially, the last day of Carnival is terça-feira gorda (fat Tuesday) and Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent (leading up to Easter). Much revelry and irreverence characterize this time, since people release the imagination in costumes, songs, and balls.

The date of Easter sets the date of Carnival and other “mobile” dates (they change each year) of the calendar. The Catholic Church celebrates the Easter (Resurrection of Christ) by following the Jewish calendar that celebrated the liberation from slavery of Egypt for the freedom of the Promised Land by God to Abraham. According to Aquino (2008, p. 1): “(...) the Jewish calendar was based on the Moon, thus, the date of Christian Easter became mobile in the Christian calendar, as well as the other dates for Easter, in the Catholic Church and in the Protestant and Orthodox Churches.”

The Catholic countries of southern Europe and Latin America usually celebrate the Carnival festival every year and in each place the demonstrations are quite diverse, but they have joy and casualness in common.

Carnival parties say a lot about a people and their longings, revealing, in their manifestations of revelry, their customs, ways of thinking and living, and, sometimes, situations of political or social crisis.

The Carnival period provides to individuals an illusory sense of equality and freedom, reducing the differences between the social classes and fighting against the taboos and rules of society:

The Carnival party is the moment of total reversal of the dominant regime: the liberation, even if provisional, the abolition of hierarchies, rules and taboos, pagan reconciliation. Dreamy desires from one place to another and from another one time, from a utopia and a uchronia. Such abolition has a special meaning. In official festivals, hierarchical distinctions, with insignia, titles, speeches, and pomps, intentionally marked inequalities. In the popular festival, the utopian ideal and the real were an essential part of the “carnivalized” vision of life and the world. Consequently, this provisional elimination, at the same time ideal and effective, of hierarchical relations between individuals, created in the public square a particular type of communication, inconceivable in normal situations (BAKHTIN, 1993, p. 9).

In Brazil, this inversion of values, sarcasm, and irony that plays with situations of reality is very evident. Many demonstrations of the mundo ao revés (world in reverse) exist, according to Miranda (1997, p. 134): exchanging the day for the night, the life of the neighborhood for the city center, the territory of work for the territory of dance and pleasure. Sexual and social roles are exchanged: sexist men dress up as women, adults wear diapers and pacifiers, serious men dress up as rascals, blacks and whites dress up as Indians, poor men wear noble costumes, people from other social classes dress up as beggars, and even the most excited revelers cover themselves with shrouds as if they wanted to revere death. These contrasts cause admiration and grace and are part of the spontaneity and irreverence of the time.

Still according to Miranda (1997, p. 126), the Carnival party is a striking trait, almost ubiquitous in various cultural practices and in the Brazilian people imaginary, influencing artistic manifestations in cinema, literature, and music.

Brought by Portuguese settlers to Brazil, the oldest form of fun at this time of year was Entrudo, in which masters and slaves took to the streets to participate in games and plays that put them in an apparently equal situation, but their roles defined very well in what position they were since, commonly, slaves were the “targets” in the plays of throwing limões e laranjas de cheiro, for instance. At that time black people used to play with each other when their masters went home or early in the morning.

From 1870 to 1930, a considerable change happened in the social classes in the cities of the center-south due to the rapid enrichment brought by the coffee culture; firstly in Rio de Janeiro and, then, in Vale do Paraíba , proceeding in the direction of São Paulo.

Forms of fun restricted to the upper classes of society appeared in this period, harming old ways of partying that began to be seen as inadequate and became exclusive to the most popular classes.

The most wealthy class modified its festive activities by importing and adapting to the Brazilian conditions of European ways of having fun, not creating anything really new, just using its economic possibilities to introduce the practices from overseas; however, the popular classes, except the resources needed for imports, used their creativity and previous experiences to devise new forms of fun. (SIMSON, 1981, p. 47).

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the media already existed, the newspapers of the time began to campaign against the Entrudo because only the bourgeois were allowed to parade, and the others could only watch without participating. There had been a number of municipal measures that forbade these plays from the highest classes of society and demanded police chiefs compliance with the measures.

Entrudo was a primitive and violent form of fun based on throwing things at each other (water, flour, fruit, etc.) and remained until the 1880s, when the intense press campaign along with the repressive action of the police made the Carnival more “civilized”.

According to (Galdin, 2000; p. 49) in the 1880s, the street Carnival (the préstito) with ballroom Carnival (the costumed people of the balls) united and from this union the Carnival associations were born.

Carnival balls from other countries, such as Italy, especially the masquerade parades of Venice, influenced Brazil. Today, when talking about Carnival in Italy, the festivities of Venice and Viraggio in Tuscany are usually remembered, as they are famous worldwide.

Many of the outfits and characteristic costumes of the 18th century tried to reproduce the style and fashion of the nobles of this time, the noble masks, with white grimaces, black silk, and three-pointed hat. Later was added the model of the characters of the Commedia dell’Arte (figures of theatrical representations common in Italy and throughout Europe from the 16th century until the middle of the 18th century—some worshiped to the present day): 

(...) Arlequim (servant with clothes in diamonds, smart, seductive, and bumbling), Colombina (servant, Arlequim’s passionate), Briguela (greedy and facetious servant), the Burratino (shrewd servant), the Captain Scaramouche (military adventurer and navigator), the Doctor (middle class or aristocrat), Pantaloon (foolish adventurous marketer), Pulcinella (passionate hunchback, cruel, and cunning), the Zanni (smart and cheeky servants), the Jester (clowns, fools, or silly), the elegant and refined ladies, who were then joined by the masks of Pierrot (innocent figure, beautiful, charming, and kind) and cats, among others more recent. We should remember that, after all, Venice was the prime environment by excellence of this theatrical genre. (FERRO, 2014, p. 41).

Despite the strong European influence, especially in the Carnival balls known as Carnaval de Salão (Hall Carnival), speaking of the Carnival of Brazil as a whole, currently, is somewhat imprecise. Manifestations vary from region to region and even from city to city. The most significant Carnival parties in Brazil are from the city of Rio de Janeiro (in Rio de Janeiro), Salvador (in Bahia), and Recife and Olinda (both in Pernambuco).

According to Miguez (p. 75), the spectacle’s condition is what specially characterizes Rio’s Carnival; the mark of Pernambuco’s Carnival is the tradition along with popular participation; the Carnival from Bahia, also recognized for its great popular participation, seeks to keep the tradition mixed with innovations.

In Rio de Janeiro, the samba schools are responsible for the show and they combine fine arts, music, poetry, and dance, aiming to harmonize them throughout the parade. The presentation of each samba school is a show on its own and the parades attract tourists from all over the world.

Salvador’s Carnival is like Rio de Janeiro’s regarding the spectacle, because the creation of the electric trio in 1950, by Dodo and Osmar from Bahia, totally modified the panorama of Carnival in their state. The revelers began to pular carnaval, that is, to dance with free movements following the electric trios that are like mobile stages.

In Pernambuco, more than a decade ago the Carnival of Recife was called by the official bodies as “multicultural Carnival” due to the various forms of popular manifestation observed at this time of year:

On one hand, tradition, represented by popular shows, such as the nation maracatu, the rural maracatu, the frevo blocks, the troças, the allegory and critical clubs, the caboclinhos, the tribes of Indians, the bears, the various groups of afoxés, the samba schools, the reisado festival, and the bumba-meu-boi; on the other hand, the musical scene is contemporary. (VIEIRA, 2014, p. 113).

The official opening of Carnival in the city of Recife is marked by the Galo da Madrugada parade.

Galo da Madrugada is a Carnival block that happens every Saturday of Carnival in the central region of Recife. Enéas Freire created the association in 1978. The revelers begin to arrive around 7 am on foot or they position their boats in the Capibaribe River to follow the passage of the block whose official exit starts at 9 am and the electric trios play until 18 pm.

(...) in 1994 came the international recognition of the book of records, the Guinness Book. It became official: Galo da Madrugada was the largest carnival block on the planet, in a Carnival that gathered one and a half million revelers. The title stamped the next year’s edition of the book. To celebrate and revere the majesty of the Pernambuco’s Carnival that had just won the world, the City Hall of Recife put, in 1995, a gigantic rooster on the waters of the Capibaribe River, making the Carnival of Recife spectacle even more beautiful. In 1996, the apotheosis of the parade gained even more color and brightness: cabins, a giant umbrella, a couple of King and Queen of Maracatu on the Capibaribe River, and a much more gigantic Rooster, this time assembled on the Duarte Coelho Bridge – where it is until today. (MAIA, 2013, p. 9).

Galo da Madrugada remains faithful to its roots, valuing the rhythm of Pernambuco and seducing everyone with its chorus:

“Hey people, come on guys! Carnival begins at Galo da Madrugada.”

In Olinda, the Carnival emerged at the beginning of the 20th century together with the Carnival Clubs, such as the Clube Carnavalesco Misto Lenhadores (1907) and the Clube Carnavalesco Misto Vassourinhas (1912). Several street blocks with costumed revelers, usually accompanied by frevo orchestras and the giant puppet parades (since the early 1930s), traditionally marks the city’s Carnival. The best-known giant puppet, the “Midnight Man” paraded for the first time on the streets of Olinda in 1932.

The most diverse manifestations of Carnival in the world represent the mixture of cultural traits in a magic of colors and sounds that reveal the creativity and irreverence of revelers in every corner of the earth. Moreover, the Brazilian Carnival is the own expression of the contagious joy of this time of year.



Recife, December 28, 2016.

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how to quote this text

VERARDI, Cláudia Albuquerque; NOGUEIRA, Lara. Carnaval: origem e evolução. In: Pesquisa Escolar. Recife: Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, 2016. Available at: Access on: month day year. (Ex.: Aug. 6, 2020.)