The Truth About Carnival: It's Not Just Government Sanctioned Debauchery
As the unofficial Caribbean representative in most of my friend groups, I often have to answer questions and debunk myths about loads of things that people of other cultures tend to tie with Caribbean culture. Carnival is a common topic in those conversations, and in the spirit of my island's current "carnival" taking place back home I've decided to acknowledge (and possibly debunk!) a few myths/misconceptions/stereotypes about carnival and U.S. Virgin Islands Carnival in particular.
"Carnival is an African tradition."
This is not entirely correct.
Carnival actually came about through Catholicism when, in recognition of the first day of Lent, Catholics in Italy began hosting costume festivals. In the tradition of abstaining from meat during lent, they called the festivals "carne vale" which translates to "farewell to flesh/meat." These celebrations spread throughout Europe and came to other countries through colonization: France, Spain, and Portugal all brought their Lent traditions with them to places like the Caribbean, Louisiana, and South America.
African slaves in these countries began to incorporate their own culture with Lent celebrations over time and in the celebration of their emancipation hundreds of years later, carnival eventually transformed from a religious festival to a celebration of life, freedom, culture and music.
"Carnival is exactly the same no matter where you go."
While carnival traditions do have similar ties and origins among people of African descent, they are all celebrated for slightly different reasons and at different times of year. Each island or country incorporates their own unique traditions, music, dances, costume styles and culture into their carnival celebrations and some even call it by different names (Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Junkanoo in the Bahamas, etc.) There are even people who travel to different carnivals throughout the year and on a bi-annual basis to get a taste of something different from each celebration.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, where I'm from, we celebrate three different "carnivals" and none of them are exactly alike.
In St. Thomas, the "Virgin Islands Carnival" dates back to 1912 when the islands were a part of the Danish West Indies. Carnivals were relatively small and consisted of traditions like masquerading, parades, and musical celebrations. The closest form to the modern day carnival first took place in 1952 and has happened annually during the month of April ever since.
In St. Croix, carnival is actually called the "Crucian Christmas Festival." This celebration also became official in 1952, but takes place during the month of December through the first week of January. This is the result of a revival of Crucian holiday traditions, where our enslaved ancestors were allowed to celebrate Christmas and New Year holidays. Masquerading was a large part of Crucian holiday celebrations and was heavily incorporated into festival as a result.
St. John has hosted the "youngest" of the three U.S. Virgin Islands carnival celebrations, which is also called a "festival", since 1960. This came to be when Emancipation Day and Fourth of July commemorations evolved over time into festival celebrations that mirrored its larger sister islands. Today, St. John Festival still occurs in July around both holidays.
"Carnival costumes look the same on every Caribbean island"
It's common to see ornate feathered and jeweled costumes as the common representation of Caribbean carnival, but Carnival costumes can take many different shapes and sizes. In St. Croix, you'll see everything come down the road from elegant dresses made of madras, feathers and sequins, mocko jumbies and traditional masqueraders. The tradition of "costume" derived from Carnival's origins is still very much alive, and each group that takes part in carnival has mission of creating a costume that will be remembered.
In the Bahamas, Junkanoo costumes are large, ornate, and memorable in an effort to win annual prizes. All U.S. Virgin Islands carnival/festival celebrations also award "troupes" for great costumes, dance routines, and more.
"Carnival is no longer traditional"
Generational differences can often be seen in the debates that take place around carnival, especially in the U.S. Virgin Islands. As a melting pot of culture in the Caribbean, our carnival costumes have changed quite a bit over time to incorporate elements of other Carnivals. The most common costumes you see consist of swim suits decorated with jewels, feathers and back-pieces, but they are actually not U.S. Virgin Islands traditions (whereas mocko jumbies, masqueraders, indigenous costumes, bamboula dancers, and madras are.)
In my personal opinion, I don't think that carnival has become "less" traditional. I just think that the USVI has begun to reflect its status as a melting pot with newer traditions. New "troupes" (organized groups that participate in parades) have found ways to incorporate older and newer traditions into their costumes for the better.
"Carnival is sexual in nature"
Carnival is not inherently sexual.
While there are some that would more prudishly disagree with the idea of men and women wearing next to nothing while dancing sensually in the streets, carnival is more of a celebration of life and the body than anything else. This idea is still very much up for debate depending on one's personal views, but as someone who was born and raised in the Caribbean it's something I've always seen as a part of the celebrations vs. sexual deviance or risque behavior.
There are some that would say that carnival has become more and more sexual in recent years, but I still vividly recall people enjoying carnival the same way when I was younger. The Caribbean has always been a unique location for an intersect of the freedom of sexual expression and the more conservative nature and expectations tied to religious beliefs. Ultimately, how one celebrates carnival is entirely a personal decision.
"Celebrating carnival (as an "outsider") is cultural appropriation"
Carnival has never been an exclusive event for locals, and we often welcome visitors and friends from other cultures and backgrounds to celebrate with us. It is encouraged however, to attempt to learn and understand our culture instead of using Carnival solely as a vacation opportunity.
Each Carnival has a a deeper meaning for the people who celebrate it, and just like any other cultural tradition, it's not something to be co-opted, criticized, or set as a trend by people who do not truly understand or appreciate it. For many U.S. Virgin Islanders, carnival is our homecoming, our opportunity to reconnect to our friends and family, and most importantly one of the few times we get to "take the mask off" and be the rawest version of ourselves while celebrating a decades-old tradition with the people we love.
As St. Croix currently celebrates "festival" I am sitting in my office at work hidden away from the 32 degree weather outside, dreaming of the jouvert, parade, the village, and scanning the internet for my next ticket home. No matter what you have planned in travel for 2020, I highly encourage you to consider a "carnival" celebration anywhere in the world. It is sure to be something you will never forget.
Photo From: Picara Pearl