A few weeks ago at work, people started talking about Carnival and making plans for costumes and going out. When asked what carnival is, they found it difficult to explain. Perhaps the best explanation came from a colleague who said:
“It’s a bit like being a teenager again really, everyone dresses up in fancy dress and wanders the streets and stands around drinking and having a good time.”
That’s a pretty good explanation I think, having experienced carnival for the first time last night in the streets of Alicante. Perhaps the reason people can’t really explain carnival is because there has been a fair amount of speculation on the origins of the fiesta but no one really seems to know how or where it started!
The most popular belief is explained on a Spanish fiestas website (yes there are pages devoted solely to Spanish holidays and fiestas, they like to party, the Spanish!),
“The term Carnival derives from the words "farewell to the flesh," a reference to the excesses that led up to the sombre Lent. Some suspect Carnival is derived from the Roman solstice festival, the Saturnalia, where participants indulged in much drinking and dancing. Saturnalia is believed to have had the first parade floats, called the 'carrus navalis'. With these pagan roots, it’s easy to see why the dictator General Franco banned them for forty years!”
So last night was my first carnival. As ever in Spain, festivities began at a fairly late hour, in my Northern European terms, and continued through the night. We arrived in Alicante at 8p.m to find the streets fairly busy with costumed crowds. We saw the usual witches and zombies of Halloween but also some very imaginative groups with collective costumes, including Snow White, a wicked witch and some dwarves (we lost count but there didn’t seem to be 7 of them).
We went to a restaurant to celebrate a friend’s birthday (as a British group of 10 people, we were the first ones in at 8pm but it soon filled up) and watched as a group of toreadors sat beside us, about ten of them, all women, all beautiful. Groups of children dressed as animals and cartoon characters came in with family and friends, the waiter was dressed as a lion. It was all very entertaining and peaceful and funny.
We left the restaurant at 10.30 and entered the true world of carnival along the main street of Alicante (the Rambla) where there were food and drink stalls and thronging crowds and music playing and bright lights festooning the street. Children were dancing; people were eating popcorn and generally having fun.
It did feel like being a teenager again (even though we weren’t dressed up!) in the best sense of being a teenager. The wild abandon of losing your identity to a mask and costume but also that great feeling of being part of a community, either your own small community of other teenage friends, who have decided that they will join in with your convict or fairy theme and wear a similar ridiculous outfit as yours. Or that larger community of everyone, old and young, men and women, all joining together to wear silly outfits, stand around drinking and chatting and having a good time.
The sight of two Sponge Bob Square pants smoking did not diminish the enjoyment of the evening and as we walked home I was delighted to see a vast horde of Roman centurions, complete with chariot and Cleopatra. They were in close competition with a group (a hive?) of all male bees who gathered together and buzzed for someone who wanted a photo. I’m really sorry I did not have a camera but next year we will dress up, I will take my children into Alicante for the fun and we will take photographs of us all acting like teenagers for the blog.