Are you familiar with the Carnival traditions in Europe? Discover the most beautiful parades from Spain to Italy

How beautiful are the Carnival traditions in Europe? Whether it’s children dressed up in the most whimsical costumes, classic parades with floats, or more refined masks, Carnival has the power to bring together people of all ages across the world.

Like traditional music, Carnival is a living expression of a people’s culture, and like it, Carnival traditions in Europe are ancient and waiting to be rediscovered.

Let’s start by saying that Carnival is actually a Christian festival. Loosely related to Greek Dionysian festivals and Roman Saturnalia, its name comes from the Latin carnem levare, referring to the practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays during the forty days of Lent, including Ash Wednesday, until Easter. But its name could also derive from Carrus navalis, the propitiatory floats that parade throughout the city. Whatever its origin, Carnival has a very specific reason for existence. It echoes the ancient Roman concept of panem et circenses, a way to vent playful instincts through entertainment.


The meaning of Carnival traditions in Europe?

Like Halloween, Carnival also has a complex history rooted in pagan rituals and Christian interpretation. Carnival traditions in Europe are not just an opportunity for a carefree day; they are part of an ancient tradition and have a very specific meaning!

Carnival anticipates the days of Lent. This year, the Carnival period begins on January 28th and ends on Shrove Tuesday, February 13th. The adjective “fat” refers to the grand Tuesday banquet that precedes the fasting of Ash Wednesday and the period of austerity observed during all 40 days.

But during the Carnival period, it’s not just about food. It’s primarily about the subversion of hierarchical roles, a symbol of Carnival. It’s a temporary topsy-turvy world where anything goes. Kings and masters temporarily lose power, which is gained by their subjects. Pranks and transgressions were allowed during the Carnival period, often targeting their masters. Masks were used to hide faces and avoid retaliation after the Carnival period. But all of this was allowed only for a temporary moment. Overturning the rules serves only to unleash madness, to then return to normality with vigor and austerity.

Carnival in Italy

Carnival traditions in Europe naturally begin in Italy. In the Bel Paese, there are countless Carnival traditions rooted in time and tied to the old city festivities. In Italy, Carnival is felt even in the food, with the famous “chiacchiere” (also known as “frappé,” “bugie,” “cenci,” or in the variant of “lattughe”), crispy strips of fried dough, dusted with powdered sugar, or the chocolate cream called “sanguinaccio.” But Carnival traditions in Europe are not just about food; they are primarily about fun.

Let’s start with what is surely the most famous Carnival tradition in Europe. The Venice Carnival. This unmissable event, held in St. Mark’s Square, attracts millions of tourists to the lagoon every year (the numbers are staggering!).
Another great popular tradition is in Ivrea, where the Battle of Oranges is held during Carnival. People divide into teams and engage in a symbolic battle, similar to a war, by throwing oranges at each other. This tradition has its roots in an ancient revolt against a local tyrant and celebrates the freedom and pride of the community.

But how can we not mention Italy’s most famous float parade in Viareggio?
The Viareggio Carnival is famous for its gigantic allegorical floats. Each float represents a political or social satire and is pulled along Viareggio’s promenade during the course of the festival with dances and songs accompanying the procession.

Carnival traditions are also strongly felt in southern Italy.
In Putignano, Puglia, they wait all year to parade the famous “living masks” called “zeppole.” These masked figures, dressed in traditional clothes, perform in the city streets, interacting with the public and entertaining them with comedic sketches and theatrical performances.

Carnival in Spain

In the country of Flamenco, there couldn’t be a great Carnival tradition missing. The intersection of diverse cultures in Spain, from Catholic to Gypsy, always creates that magic that only Spain can turn into reality (here’s our in-depth look at Duende, the most magical part of Flamenco in Spain).

From the Carnival of Tenerife, where the Carnival queen is elected, to the allegorical float parades, street dances, and fireworks, to the Carnival of Sitges in Catalonia, where you witness the Disfressa del Dimoni,  where people dress up as devils and parade through the streets of Sitges, followed by an all-night party.

These Carnival celebrations encapsulate the entire Spanish soul. A soul made of passion and vitality, where every occasion is a moment to come together collectively and celebrate grandly.
Fantastic are also those of Puerto de la Cruz, in the Canary Islands, known for its parades of floral floats, those of Badajoz and Cadiz in Andalusia (very similar to each other), where the Murga is organized, a street performance where groups of people play and sing humorous and satirical songs.

Carnival in Portugal

The second stage of the SEA and YOU festival, the festival of traditional European music that combines Fado, Flamenco, and classical Neapolitan songs, is about to arrive in Porto. But what does a festival of traditional European music have to do with Carnival traditions in Europe and especially with Carnival traditions in Portugal?

Everything! Because it is from these festivals that we can notice how a people collectively reason.

Among Portugal’s most famous Carnivals, we can recall the Carnival of Torres Vedras, near Lisbon, where the “corsi allegorici” parade, richly decorated floats representing satirical scenes of Portuguese and international society, and where the “vira,” a traditional Portuguese folk dance, and the “samba do crioulo,” a form of samba with African influences, are danced. Among the most common culinary traditions is the “arroz doce” (a sweet rice), a dessert made with rice, milk, sugar, and cinnamon, often consumed during Carnival. Also near Lisbon, we find the Carnival of Loures, known not only for its floats and dances but also for the codfish fritters and “arroz de marisco,” a seafood risotto.

But we can notice how the tradition of costumes is prominent in other places in Portugal. This is the case of the Carnival of Ovar, characterized by “trajes e máscaras de papel,” costumes and masks made of paper by hand. Or the case of the Carnival of Podence, where we can meet the “caretos,” masked men wearing wool costumes who walk the village streets, driving away evil spirits and bringing prosperity for the coming year.

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By Davide Lancia