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The Colorful Tapestry of Carnaval: A Journey Through Time and Tradition


Olá! I’m Sofia Pereira, hailing from the vibrant city of Braga in the Norte region, and I’ve grown up amidst the rich tapestry of traditions that paint the cultural canvas of Minho. From the spirited dances at Romaria de Santo André to the serene hikes through Peneda-Gerês National Park, I’ve lived my life in a constant dance with nature and festivity. But of all the traditions, Carnaval holds a special place in my heart.

The Early Roots of Carnaval (A Raiz do Carnaval)

Carnaval’s story is as layered as the costumes and masks that define it. Its earliest roots can be traced back to the ancient festivities of Rome and Greece, rooted in ancient pagan rituals like Saturnalia and Bacchanalia, where music, dance, and the inversion of social norms celebrated the end of winter and the promise of spring’s renewal. This is where the seeds of revelry and disguise were sown. These pagan rituals were a release from the daily grind, a moment when the world turned upside down and the norms of society were tucked away like a well-kept heirloom. 

The Italian Influence (A Influência Italiana)

As a little girl, nestled in the emerald hills of Braga, minha mãe would often recount tales of how our ancient festivities gently folded into the fabric of Christianity, setting the stage for the season of Lent. The Italian flair gave rise to what we now cherish as Carnaval. “Carne vale,” the Italian whisper meaning the goodbye to meat, heralds a time of merry-making before the somber days of Lent. In Portugal, we embrace it as “Entrudo,” a time when, as the old adage fondly reminds us, “No Entrudo, come-se tudo” – during Entrudo, everything is eaten. The masquerade balls, a gem from the first Carnavals of Italy, resonate deeply with our own. The Venetian masks, the “Carnaval de Veneza,” with their elaborate artistry and regal past, are mirrored in our own “Cabeçudos” and “Matrafonas,” a testament to the shared melody of mirth that transcends borders, expressed through a symphony of feathers, fabrics, and a kaleidoscope of colors and textures.

From Portugal to Brazil: A Cultural Voyage (Do Portugal ao Brasil: Uma Viagem Cultural)

Back in 2019, I venture to the pulsating streets of Rio de Janeiro, and what a spectacle it was. Where our Portuguese Carnaval whispers of ancient tales and traditions, Brazil’s iteration is a carnival that sings—a boisterous, brilliant ode to diversity. Its roots, planted by our ancestors in the 17th century, have sprawled and intertwined with the vibrant threads of African and indigenous cultures to weave a dazzling tapestry of celebration. In Rio, the Carnaval is a grand theatre set under the open sky. The samba, a rhythm that courses through the city like lifeblood, was my guide through a parade of dreams. Each samba school was a story, their floats and costumes a visual symphony, a competition of creativity. The energy there—it’s electric, contagious, it demands your participation. As I danced, for a moment, I was part of something larger than life, a shared pulse between strangers who were no strangers to joy. This Brazilian fiesta, while echoing the soul of Portugal, dances to a different drum, with Salvador’s percussive beats and Recife’s frevo painting their own unique strokes on the Carnaval canvas. But, as we say in Portugal, “Tudo o que é nosso, a alma não esquece” – What’s ours, the soul does not forget.

Afonso’s Writings and First Celebrations (As Escritas de Afonso e Primeiras Celebrações)

The first account of Carnaval in Portugal dates to a document from 1252, during King Afonso III’s reign. It speaks of a celebration with a semblance of organized chaos, a jubilant defiance of the ordinary that has been the hallmark of Carnaval ever since. This history is not just in dusty tomes; it’s alive in the raucous laughter and the clinking of glasses at every festival I attend.

Feasting and Fasting: The Culinary Duality (Banquete e Jejum: A Dualidade Culinária)

As Carnaval approaches, heralding a time where tables are laden with dishes steeped in both tradition and indulgence. The “Cozido à Portuguesa,” a stew that is a tapestry of the Portuguese culinary ethos, bubbles with meats and vegetables, a testament to the gathering of family and flavors that have long defined our festive tables. The robust “Feijoada,” with its roots intertwined in our shared history, is a bean stew that hums the song of community and togetherness. Then there’s “Papas de Sarrabulho,” a hearty concoction, which stands as a tribute to our resourcefulness, ensuring that nothing goes to waste. These “fat days” of Carnaval celebrate the surplus, honoring every part of the feast with the same zest we reserve for life itself. The fattest cuts of pork, a culinary heirloom from the Christmas past, are salted, stored, and then relished, forming a gastronomic prelude to the Lenten fast. Ears, snout, feet, and tails are not merely consumed; they are enjoyed with reverence, with each bite a nod to the bounty that Carnaval ushers in. As we sip on the fine Portuguese wine, it’s more than a tradition; it’s a ritual that knits together the past and the present, a joyous affirmation of our heritage before we embrace the solemnity of Lent. In these moments, Carnaval becomes more than a fleeting festivity; it’s a vibrant chapter of our living history

The Sanctity and Sacrilege (O Sagrado e o Profano)

Carnaval is the dance between the sacred and the profane. As the streets of Braga come alive with masked figures and the air vibrates with music, there’s a palpable tension between reverence and rebellion. It’s a reminder that life is a delicate balance, a continuous cycle of observance and festivity.

Braga to Lisbon: A Celebration Across Regions (De Braga a Lisboa: Uma Celebração pelas Regiões)

From the North to the South, each corner of Portugal celebrates Carnaval with its own local flavor. In Braga, we may not have the samba rhythms of Rio, but we have the “rusgas,” where each neighborhood parades through the city, a cascade of costumes and joy. It’s a celebration of where we’ve been and who we are.

Celebrations Across Locations

As the brisk February winds dance through the streets of Braga, my heart fills with anticipation for the festivities of Carnaval. A mosaic of vibrant parades, lively music, and colorful costumes, Carnaval is the very pulse of Portugal, thumping through each region with its own rhythm and style.

In Minho, where the green of the land meets the soul of Portugal, Carnaval blooms amidst the laughter of children and the chatter of the old. Here, the streets become a canvas for “Caretos”, mischievous large wooden masked figures from ancient traditions, dancing and twirling, their cowbells ringing in symphony. My mother would hold my hand tightly, her eyes gleaming as much as mine, as we watched the gold-laden dancers in Braga. Their vivid attire and joyful steps still echo in my mind, a reminder of the innocence and delight of childhood.

And let’s not forget the “Entrudo Chocalheiro” in the northeastern region of Trás-os-Montes, where the “Caretos of Podence” leap and shake, their vibrant costumes swirling in the winter air. This is the wild heart of Portugal’s Carnaval, untamed and unabashedly joyful.This ancient tradition, now recognized by UNESCO, is a vivid thread in the fabric of our cultural tapestry. The Caretos, with their red masks and colorful layers of fringe, are more than mere masqueraders; they are guardians of a legacy, embodying the rebellion against the quietude of winter. Witnessing them chase the chill from the air with their boisterous bellows is to witness the awakening of the land itself.

Traveling further down to the coastal town of Torres Vedras, one finds the epitome of Carnaval satire. The parades here are a language of their own, speaking in the dialect of humor and hyperbole. The “Cabeçudos” loom large, towering over the crowds, their exaggerated features a caricature of society’s foibles. As a child, I would look up at these figures with a mix of awe and amusement, a combination of feelings that still returns to me each year.

Moving to Ovar, known for its artistic Carnaval, the celebration is a canvas that stretches beyond sight. Here, the parade is a living gallery, where each costume is a masterpiece, and every float is a story told in colors and contours. The dedication of the Ovarense to their craft is a poignant reminder of the love we carry for our customs.

Down south, in Loulé, Carnaval parades with a satirical smirk, mocking the politics and social issues of our times. The floats, grand and ornate, are like moving theatres, telling stories that make us laugh yet think. In Ovar, the tradition is more theatrical, with grandiose costumes that take an entire year to craft, each stitch a testament to the dedication of the Ovarense people to their heritage.

Across the sea, on the island of Madeira, Carnaval blooms in the winter like the island’s own perennial flowers. The festivities here are infused with a touch of tropical exuberance, the parades a cascade of floral motifs and sun-kissed melodies. It’s a Carnaval that dances to the rhythm of the island’s heartbeat, vibrant and pulsing with life.

Each region adds its voice to the chorus of Carnaval, a celebration that refuses to be confined or defined by one narrative. It’s a testament to the enduring spirit and diversity of our culture.

The Personal Meaning and Contemporary Relevance

Carnaval, for me, is not just a festa; it is a reminder that life is a spectacle to be celebrated. It’s where we can let go of the masks we wear daily and don another, even if just for a moment. In the revelry, I find a rare kind of freedom, a chance to reconnect with the roots that nourish my soul and the community that shapes my being.

But beyond the festivities, Carnaval has taught me the importance of stepping back from the relentless pace of modern life. As I craft traditional costumes, replicating the intricate designs that have been passed down through generations, I find tranquility. The art of creating something with your hands, stitch by stitch, is a form of meditation, bringing you back to the present, to the essence of what it means to create, to be human.

In a world where screens often dominate our views, and instant messages replace heartfelt conversations, Carnaval urges us to look up and look within. The laughter, the music, and the shared stories under the open sky, all remind us that we are part of something larger than ourselves. It’s a time when we can, and should, disconnect to reconnect – with others, with nature, and with our own hearts.

Carnaval is a vibrant, living tradition that celebrates not just the arrival of spring but the enduring human spirit. It’s a yearly reminder that joy can be found in the communal, in the historical, and in the natural. It’s an opportunity to breathe deeply amidst the festivities, to find solace in the shared human experience, and to remember that our well-being is entwined with our ability to cherish and uphold our traditions.

And so, as the last echoes of the “Marchinhas de Carnaval” fade into the night, and the confetti settles onto the cobblestoned streets of Braga, I hold onto the joyous spirit of Carnaval. It’s a beacon of hope, a spark of communal delight, and a reaffirmation of the beauty of life itself.


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