How Did Brazil's Carnival Start?

The Carnival dancers
The Carnival dancers | © Raphael David - Riotur.Rio/Flickr
Sarah Brown

Brazil’s Carnival has become the world’s largest festival, known for its over-the-top costumes, extravagant floats and week-long street parties renowned for their debauchery. It’s an event that brings the whole country to a grinding halt and reels in hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, but how did these iconic festivities begin? We bring you the lowdown on the history of Brazil’s Carnival.

Carnival in Brazil

Carnival begins every year on the Friday before Shrove Tuesday and ends on Ash Wednesday. The cities most globally-known for their Carnival celebrations are Rio de Janeiro, Olinda, Recife and Salvador, yet almost every city in the country has shows, events and performances. The popular saying ‘the year doesn’t start in Brazil until after Carnival’ is not far from the truth as the long, national Carnival holiday seems to encourage putting off all work-related plans for after the festivities are truly over.

One of the main street parties in the world’s largest festival

The origins of Carnival

Costumes are an important part of Brazil’s Carnival

The beginning of the Samba Schools

For several years, Carnival was a segregated celebration. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the parties began to take to the streets and it became a festival that everyone enjoyed together. In Rio de Janeiro, samba—which was formerly considered the music genre of the poor and slaves—came to represent Carnival and in the early 1920s, the first samba schools were formed. This led to the samba schools starting to compete in the early 1930s through performances in the now world-famous parades in a bid to be crowned the winner of Carnival. At the same time, the Carnival Queen became an iconic figure of the schools. The Queen is the most talented and beautiful samba dancer chosen to represent each school, a position that is highly sought-after thanks to its prestige, status and lucrative modelling and TV deals.

The Carnival dancers

Carnival today

These days, the parades take place in Rio’s Sambadrome, a wide avenue flanked on either side by large spectator stands that houses the tens of thousands of people who come to watch the jaw-dropping performances of the samba schools, which they prepare and practise throughout the entire year. The intricate costumes and impressive floats are made months in advance at the Cidade do Samba or Samba City, a large creative workshop in Rio’s downtown that is shared by all the samba schools. Although the religious element has become somewhat lost, the schools base their parade performances on certain themes that usually represent Brazilian history or social and environmental issues in Brazil, such as the Amazon Rainforest’s struggle or the history of Brazil’s Afro-Brazilian population.

The jaw-dropping Carnival parades

What began as a Catholic event has turned into the world’s largest outdoor party and one that continues to grow each year, as Brazilians and foreigners alike take to Brazil’s streets to let go for one week and enjoy this traditional aspect of Brazilian culture.

landscape with balloons floating in the air


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