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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.

Antigua
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.

Montserrat
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.