El Carnival ya llegó!

I’ve always found the celebration of Carnival to be not strange exactly, but definitely foreign. As Protestants we already have an ambivalence toward most official Church celebrations, never mind the extracurricular festivities. I didn’t have a First Communion and I’ve never prayed with a rosary and I’ve never eaten fish on Fridays because I had to, and although I have given up things for Lent before, I’ve never had some sort of celebration the day before in which to enjoy all the things I was supposedly going to be giving up. The closest I can come is the traditional pancake dinner my church would host on Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) which is tied to this tradition of using up all the sausages before Lent. Usually it would turn into a competition as to who could eat the most pancakes and sausages, which I not too surprisingly always lost by getting full after 2 pancakes. But we never thought of this tradition in religious or even quasi-religious terms, and although Fat Tuesday pancake dinners are common, they aren’t widespread or even very important celebrations.

When you are in a country where Catholicism and Lent are a big deal, Carnival also turns out to be pretty important on a national level (although not any more tied to religion. Case in point: the Carnival in Cádiz began before Fat Tuesday, and then continued for several days afterward, and the Carnival in Alcalá began on Friday, a full week and a half after Lent started). Every locale in Spain has a Carnival celebration, and this year I participated in two Carnivales: the big one in Cádiz, which is said to be the 3rd largest in the world after Rio and Tenerife, and the small one in my pueblo. It was definitely a cultural experience as well as a lot of fun.

The key to having an awesome Carnival is dressing up. I was highly disappointed during our school’s Halloween celebration because every single kid dressed up as something scary. Where were the princesses? Where were the Power Rangers? I shouldn’t have worried, because they all came out on Carnival. As far as costumes go, the wittier the better! I would have fit right in with my 8th grade Halloween costume, when I dressed up as a holy cow . . . except that they don’t say “holy cow” here so NO ONE would have gotten it. To be truly Spanish though, you need a group of people who are dressed in the same or complementary costumes. While waiting for the train from Jerez into Cádiz on Carnival night I saw: a group of guys dressed up as geishas, a group of Waldo’s from Where’s Waldo?, a whole swarm of ladybugs, 2 people dressed up like those guys from A Clockwork Orange, and a bunch of bananas. I actually felt a little conspicuous being the only person dressed as I was (I went as the American flag).

The group theme is seen as an integral component of Carnival costumes. At my school on Friday, each grade had a theme and everyone dressed the same: the preschool dressed as characters from their story-textbook, the 1st and 2nd graders dressed as characters from their English textbook (one of whom is a genie), the 3rd graders were pirates, the 5th graders were doctors and hospital patients, and the 6th graders were ghosts from Pac-Man (or “Comecocos” as he is called here – Coconut Eater!). You may have noticed that I left out the 4th graders. They had no theme because that is the Hell class and they can’t behave long enough to choose a team captain to play soccer, much less a theme for Carnival. They just dressed as whatever.

Another important part of Carnival is the singing competition. It’s so popular in the Cádiz Carnival that the performances are broadcast on Canal Sur, the regional TV station, and the theatre where the competition is held is always packed. There are several kinds of groups; some, like the “coros” are regular choruses that sing in harmony, and some, like the “chirigotas” are meant more to be funny and to lampoon someone or something. Here in Alcalá we have a singing competition as well, which is just as popular locally as the Cádiz competition is regionally. I went to the big performance on Friday night and I found it almost impossible to understand. I much preferred Saturday’s performances, which happened out in the streets and in bars. I got to see all the same groups, but up close and with me being able to understand most of the words (but not the meanings – most of the songs were allusions to political happenings in the town). And at our school’s Carnival celebration, each class sang a chirigota relating to their costume theme, except for the 4th grade who sang a song about how well-behaved they were. Almost every teacher burst out laughing at least once during the song.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be Carnival if not for the food and drink. Both in Cádiz and Alcalá I saw those fair stands that sell the deep-fried junk that we all know and love: french fries, churros, waffles with chocolate and ice cream . . . A popular stand that I don’t recall ever seeing in America was the baked potato stand, where you can buy a foil-wrapped patata asada topped with sour cream, chives, bacon, cheese, butter, olive oil, and probably ham too, if you ask for it. Here in Alcalá we also had a seafood stand, for those people who just had to have a paper cone full of crab legs to munch on. In Cádiz there were a lot of stands that were just a flat-top grill and meat, where you could buy a sandwich with as many kinds of greasy animal fat on it as you wanted. And then the drink . . . Alcalá was definitely tamer than Cádiz, where everyone, but everyone, had some sort of drink in their hand as they walked along the streets. Coming in on the train was quite an adventure, as the police were checking people’s bags to see if they had any glass bottles or open containers of alcohol. I passed by a guy pouring out half of a 2-liter bottle of Fanta into the gutter, then filling it back up with alcohol, in effect pre-mixing his drink, because on the train platform there was a checkpoint. Most people brought in their own drinks mixed into bottles of juice. I clearly did not prepare adequately for Cádiz’s Carnival, because the 3 girls who sat next to me on the train had brought 1) a water bottle filled with alcohol, 2) cans of energy drinks, 3) a big bag of ice, and 4) clear plastic cups. They proceeded to put this all together into 3 mixed drinks en route to the city as I watched, amazed. Why not buy drinks in Cádiz? The answer is simple, as found out when I wanted to purchase a small bottle of water from a waffle stand and was charged 2 euros. Sheesh.


After Carnival is over, there’s a tired sense of let-down, kind of like the day after Christmas. Fortunately, Lent is only so long, and Holy Week celebrations begin soon!


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