If you think it won’t be party time until next New Year’s Eve, think again. From New Orleans to Rio de Janeiro to Sault Ste. Marie, revelers are grabbing their costumes and getting ready to celebrate Carnival, Mardi Gras, Bon Soo and much more.
Many of the world’s wildest wintertime celebrations have their origins in religious observations — and Mardi-Gras, celebrated around the world, is a great example. The name means “Fat Tuesday,” which refers to the ancient practice of eating rich, fatty foods just before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the penitent period of Lent.
Given that Mardi Gras in most countries has expanded beyond one, wonderful weekday to days or weeks of over-the-top celebrations, we have to think the whole point is to have something really great to repent.
RIO DE JANEIRO
In addition to the fancy-dress balls, endless street parties and fabulous band processions, what sets Rio’s extravaganza apart from all others is its world-famous Samba Parade. For months, local samba schools prepare, build floats, create original songs and dances, and rehearse hundreds of drummers and dancers. Special groups of older women whirl past the crowds in spectacular costumes, honouring the roots of each samba school. Competition is fierce and highly orchestrated, with each samba school incorporating hundreds of participants managed by “stewards of the flow.”
The most important event in the Rio Mardi Gras calendar, the Samba Parade begins when the gorgeously gowned King Momo, said to be the ancient Greek god of mockery, is given the key to the city and to the hearts of the crowds eager to celebrate with him.
Vying with Rio for top spot in the Mardi Gras world is New Orleans, which will be arguably the biggest party city in the U.S. this February, when it simultaneously hosts Mardi Gras and Super Bowl 2013. Though Mardi Gras parades will begin on Jan. 19, revelers will have to take a breather while football festivities take over from Jan. 28-Feb. 5. Once the gridiron glory is finished, New Orleans will explode once more with the purple, green and gold costumes, beads and magical floats for which Mardi Gras is famous.
Fancy-dress balls are held throughout the weeks of celebration, with invitations issued by members of the Mardi Gras Krewes — groups that also create the super-floats for the parades and provide the goodies thrown to the crowds. Celebrities such as Harry Connick Jr. are members of such Krewes, often paying steep membership dues for the privilege.
Though the balls are by invitation only, the parades and street parties are open to all and draw an estimated 1 million visitors. The best views of the parades, and the jazz bands playing for the street parties, are from the balconies of Bourbon Street, but those coveted spots are sold to news media, corporate groups and wealthy, long-term customers years in advance. You’ll need to rub shoulders with the crowds on the streets.
On tropical islands such as Guadeloupe and Trinidad, Mardi Gras is often referred to simply as Carnival — and it involves celebrations that last far longer than one fat Tuesday.
In Guadeloupe, practice parades are held every weekend for nearly two months before the official celebration, giving ample opportunity to dress up and party down. One tradition specific to Guadeloupe is a platoon of marchers dressed in Planet of the Apes-style monkey costumes who snap long rope whips at the crowd. Locals will explain that these characters represent the former slave owners, who were nothing but big nasty apes. Jan. 6-Feb. 13.
Trinidad’s enormous Port of Spain Carnival parade, which features dancers dressed in fabulous costumes, also began with the end of slavery, when the newly freed citizens began to mimic their former French aristocrat owners. Tossing in some mythical elements from their African ancestry, the locals created one of the world’s great sartorial spectacles. Today, nearly 300,000 people attend Trinidad’s Big Sunday to see the crowning of the carnival’s king and queen. To win the honour, contestants sport outrageous costumes such as tent-sized skirts, six-metre-high chandeliers worn on their heads and sky-high stilts. Staying up all night is a must, because it isn’t until 2 a.m. that “mas” camps (groups of revelers) smear paint, mud, powder and oil on their largely bare bodies and frolic through the dark streets. Who’d want to miss that? Feb. 11-12.
Want to celebrate a little closer to home? Canada has lots of great early-winter festivals, the biggest of which is the Quebec Winter Carnival, beginning Feb. 1. The largest celebration of its kind in the world, it offers everything from freezing zip-lines across the Plains of Abraham, to dog sledding, to canoe races on the frigid St. Lawrence River and glittering castles and slides made from 360 tons of ice.
In Edmonton, Canada’s northernmost major city, they’re celebrating the 10th year of Ice on Whyte, a festival that showcases ice carvings and lures guests to winter sidewalk cafes and outdoor concerts.
On the other side of the country, Western Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park is revving up for some winter hoopla with its Snow West celebration, Jan. 31-Feb. 9 — a mix of everything from ice sculpting to skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, caving, dog sledding and even a Newfoundland-style comedy fest.
Perhaps Canada’s best-kept winter festival secret is to be found in Sault Ste. Marie, home to Bon Soo, a winter festival established in 1964. Running Feb. 1-10, this festival makes the most of the many wintry wonders of the Sault, beginning with trips on the Agawa Canyon train, transformed for the season into the Snow Train. Because the train travels into territory not serviced by roads, passengers see winter landscapes in the canyon that are completely untouched. Back in the Sault, Bon Soo celebrations include curling bonspiels, dog sled races, a much-publicized polar bear swim, ice sculpting, outdoor concerts and more. Despite the Sault’s distance from other major Canadian cities, more than 50,000 participants from across the country come to party with the festival’s mascot Mr. Bon Soo, the gentleman snowman.
Liz Fleming is a freelance writer based in St. Catharines.
Five other fab festivals
1. The Carnevale di Venezia is one of the world’s best reasons to dress up. Celebrated on the canals and in the beautiful squares of this most romantic city, Venetians and visitors alike dress in beautiful costumes but hide their faces behind elaborate masks — mysterious and fun. venice-carnival-italy.com
2. If you’re in the Belgian town of Binche on Shrove Tuesday, keep your eyes open for the Gilles, costumed Carnival marchers who wear large hats and masks and throw blood oranges at the crowds. Don’t throw them back — it’s good luck to catch one. carnavaldebinche.be
3. It’s worth the trip to Denmark to be part of Fastelavn, during which the Danish children play a game called “beating the cat out of the barrel.” No worries, however — no cats are actually harmed. Instead, children smack a wooden barrel covered in pictures of cats until it breaks and rains down a hail of candies. visitdenmark.com
4. Dunedin, Fla., is known for more than its spring training camps. There, “Big Mama’s Ya Ya Etouffee” brings out hordes of tourists and locals to see the more than 50 floats that make up this Mardi Gras-style parade and party in the spring training home of the Blue Jays. dunedinmardigras.com
5. There’s nothing about cold they don’t like in Yellowknife — so they celebrate it with the Snowking Winter Festival in early March. There, ice castles don’t melt, so they build one that lasts a month, making it the centrepiece of a party that includes art exhibits, a hockey tournament, a film festival, live music and more. visityellowknife.com
JUST THE FACTS
• Carnival in Rio: rio-carnival.net.
• New Orleans Mardi Gras: mardigrasneworleans.com.
• Guadeloupe: maguadeloupe.ca.
• Trinidad and Tobago: trinidad.us.
• Quebec Winter Carnival: carnaval.qc.ca.
• Winterlude: canadascapital.gc.ca.
• Edmonton’s Ice on Whyte: iceonwhyte.ca.
• Snow West in Gros Morne: gowesternnewfoundland.com/snowwest.
• Bon Soo: bonsoo.on.ca.