Brazil, Carnival in

Brazil, Carnival in

The people of Brazil celebrate Carnival with great enthusiasm. The most spectacular events take place in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Numerous neighborhood organizations called escolas de samba, or "samba schools," operate year-round planning the theme, music and costumes for their members'next Carnival parade. These parades feature marching bands pounding out catchy samba tunes and legions of gorgeously but scantily costumed dancers. Many Brazilians attend costume balls, while others prefer to party in the streets. In Rio de Janeiro the spirit of Carnival overtakes the city, urging people to stay out till all hours drinking, dancing, costume-watching and flirting. Although the inventive citizens of Rio de Janeiro hit the streets in a wide range of costumes, one favorite costume idea is for men to dress as women and women as men. In Brazil Carnival occurs in the middle of the summer, so many people take the heat into consideration when planning a costume. Indeed the long, hot days ensure that festivities generally begin in the late afternoon and continue on through the night.


When Portuguese colonists arrived in Brazil in the sixteenth century they brought Carnival with them. In Portugal people celebrated En- trudo, or Carnival, by wandering through the streets throwing oranges, lemons, eggs, flour, mud, straw, corncobs, beans, or lupines (a type of flower) at one another. They also staged mock battles with brooms and wooden spoons. People on balconies poured dirty water, glue, or other obnoxious substances on the crowds below. Indoors families and their guests feasted on rich foods. The wealthier homes might even toss cakes and pastries out the window to passersby.

The spirit of these rowdy Portuguese Entrudo celebrations crossed the Atlantic with the colonists and implanted itself on Brazilian soil. The Brazilian Entrudo lasted for about three centuries, even though official condemnations of the folk festival date back to the early 1600s. Brazilians especially enjoyed celebrating Entrudo by throwing water at one another. Rio de Janeiro newspapers frequently warned of the dangers this popular custom posed to the city's water supply. Another favorite sport consisted of tossing flour on top of sopping wet partygoers. Splattering passersby with vinegar-scented cologne or liquid dyes encased in balls of wax was another well-known Carnival prank. In time wax lemons became the favorite projectile of Brazilian Entrudo celebrations. People prepared for the festival by crafting dozens of these fake fruit. The disorder unleashed by these spirited Entrudo customs often led to incidents of violence. As a result several mid-nineteenth century decrees attempted to do away with Entrudo, but they failed due to the festival's widespread popularity. In spite of these failures the holiday began to change shape during the second half of the nineteenth century as the well-to-do introduced elements of a more sophisticated European Carnival to Brazil. These included fancy costume balls and parades with elegant floats, including a "Float of Criticism," which ridiculed a recent political event. In addition, in 1900 the citizens of Rio de Janeiro introduced the custom of crowning a Carnival king to rule over the festivities. As cars became available to the wealthy, rich society members celebrated the festival by riding in automobile processions from which they threw confetti, streamers, and water.

In the early twentieth century Brazilian Carnival celebrations expanded again, this time to include elements of African culture introduced by the recently freed slave population. These elements included a custom called the "Congo," a kind of parade based loosely on the procession of a royal African court, and the rancho de reis, a parade whose participants attempted to tell a story through music, imagery, and dance. What's more, the numbers of people participating in cordões, small groupings of people wearing traditional Carnival costumes, also increased. These costumes included devils, Indians, bats, kings, queens, clowns, Death, and women from the Bahia region.

In the 1930s Carnival in Brazil took on a new twist with the introduction of escolas de samba, or samba schools. Samba is a particular style of music and dance that blends African and European musical influences to create jaunty tunes set to bouncy rhythms. Founded by members of the poorest segment of society and located primarily in Rio de Janeiro, the samba schools have set the tone of the modern Brazilian Carnival. Each year they organize thousands of their members into spectacular parades around a particular theme. At first, however, authorities persecuted the groups.

In 1935 Carnival became an official holiday. With legalization came government control, in the form of rules regarding permissible themes for the samba schools'presentations. In spite of their association with the lower classes, samba schools steadily gained in popularity. By the 1960s middle-class people and intellectuals became involved with them in significant numbers. Today the samba schools continue to present themes from Brazil's history and folklore, and people from various class and racial groups temporarily join together to participate in the school's parade. Poor people, however, may have to go into debt to pay for their extravagant costumes. Many choose to do so because of the very high value that Brazilians place on participating in Carnival.

Carnival in Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro's glamorous Carnival has gained worldwide fame. Each year millions of tourists descend upon the city to watch and participate in the sensuous spectacle. As the festival begins the mayor presents King Momo, the king of Carnival, with the keys to the city. This symbolic gesture formally ushers in the spirit of Carnival to Rio de Janeiro. The king is selected from among the city's well-known male citizens. In addition to social prominence the king must have a large waistline, thought to represent a jolly disposition, and good health, since he must attend an exhausting round of parties and parades.

For the four days of Carnival, which stretch from the Saturday before Ash Wednesday to the following Tuesday, King Momo rules the city. As the mascot of the holiday, King Momo rides on parade floats, attends parties, and makes other appearances. The king reigns alongside a Carnival princess. Various beauty queens make up the rest of the royal court. Carnival is such an important holiday in Rio de Janeiro that shops and offices close for a week or two so that everyone may prepare for and enjoy the festival.

Samba Schools

Rio de Janeiro's dozens of samba schools prepare for Carnival yearround. They begin by reviewing samba songs submitted by local folk musicians. After selecting a theme song, core members of the samba school proceed to organize a parade around it, designing costumes, constructing floats, choreographing dance moves, and coordinating participants. Dues paid by the school's thousands of members fund these activities. While the samba schools' main purpose is to fund and organize Carnival parades, the groups also function as community clubs throughout the year.

The main Carnival parades take place on the Sunday and Monday before Ash Wednesday. They begin around seven p.m. and continue until dawn. Each samba school creates its own parade with six to eight floats and thousands of costumed participants. Each parade consists of a number of sections, called alas, or "wings," composed of hundreds of people wearing the same costume.

In the 1980s the citizens of Rio de Janeiro constructed a special cluster of buildings called the Sambadrome to provide comfortable seating for those who wished to watch the parades. Built along the main parade route, the Sambadrome is half a mile long and can seat 85,000 people. It also houses the main judging stand from which the presentations of each samba school will be evaluated and ranked against the others. Each parade may take as long as an hour to pass by the judges'stand.

Although the theme, song, and costumes of each parade differ from one another, they follow a similar format. First come the formally dressed members of the samba school's head committee. Then follows a float that summarizes the theme of the parade. After that enter standard bearers and pages, who hand song sheets to the crowd and urge them to sing along with the music. Behind them come the mistress and master of ceremonies. Dressed in powdered wigs and eighteenth-century clothing, their appearance contrasts greatly with the rest of the parade. They execute courtly dance steps as they make their way along the parade route. The enormous bateria, or drum section, then bursts onto the scene, pounding out the syncopated samba rhythms on small and large drums, tambourines, shakers, cowbells, triangles, and other percussion instruments. They are followed by ranks of sexy samba dancers. Other wings to watch for include the baianas, older women dressed in the traditional clothing of the Bahia region and dancing as nimbly as many who are years younger, and the velha guarda, men dressed in snappy white suits and Panama hats.

Street Parties

Rio de Janeiro also boasts an active street Carnival which includes many less formal parades. These informal parades, called blocos or ban- das, feature an orchestra that marches along a set route, accompanied by a motley horde of dancers. Late in the afternoon people gather at local bars or plazas to socialize, drink, and listen to samba music. This gathering, called the concentration, energizes people for the parade. When the moment is right the group members spill out onto the streets and, propelled by tunes pounded out by the group's marching musicians, shimmy their way down the parade route. People attend these events dressed as they are, so some appear in costumes, others in street clothes, and still others in bathing suits. These parades often interrupt traffic and gather new participants as they wend their way through the city streets.

Carnival Balls

Carnival balls offer another opportunity for fun. They take place at various hotels and clubs throughout the city and feature live music, dancing, drinking, costumes, and flirtation. Some of these events cost quite a bit of money to attend and so attract members of high society. Others are more reasonably priced and thus pull in a wider variety of partygoers. Some, while open to the public, attempt to draw special audiences, such as men dressed as women.

Beach Parties

Beach parties present Carnival-goers with a less structured form of Carnival fun. The samba schools host massive beach parties in the Copacabana district, which are broadcast on television.

Kids' Carnival

The children of Rio de Janeiro step into the Carnival spotlight on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday. On this day children's samba schools hold parades complete with glittering costumes and elaborate floats. The miniature masqueraders march to the Sambadrome, where they are cheered on by family, friends, and fellow citizens.

Further Reading

Goldwasser, Maria Julia. "Carnival." In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Volume 3. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Holidays. Volume 1. Detroit, MI: UXL, 2000. Lau, Alfred. Carneval International. Bielefeld, Germany: Univers-Verlag, n.d. Orloff, Alexander. Carnival: Myth and Cult. Wörgl, Austria: Perlinger, 1981.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002