The roots of Carnival began during the frantic colonization of Brazil, which led to an enormous socio-economic gap between rich and poor, but during the time of the festival, the roles were reversed and inhibitions evaporated. The common folk would go from rags to riches, wearing elegant clothing as the upper class would head in the opposite direction and don the clothing of the commoner. Opposite to the famous opera saying, the party doesn’t start until the fat man arrives. That fat man, is King Momo.
King Momo may be the figurehead of the party, but he is in fact not a Latin American creation – but from Greek mythology, Momus coming from the Greek words of ‘blame’ or ‘disgrace’. He was the king of mockery and satire – something Carnival revolves around. Carnival is not solely a Rio de Janeiro festival, nor simply a Brazilian tradition, as many countries engage in their own versions of this ancient celebration, but there is no larger party than Rio’s, and when the city hands the key over to Momo, it is time to let loose.
In some other Latin America countries, such as Brazil’s neighbours Argentina and Uruguay, Momo is often portrayed as an enormous paper mache figure – which Brazil also used for their first 15 Carnival celebrations of the modern era. Since 1949 though, King Momo in Rio’s Carnival has been played by a person, usually well known, and always of a fat, large physical stature. It is not uncommon for a beloved King Momo to make a return appearance for a string of Carnivals.
With a staggering 700,000 tourists visiting Rio de Janeiro each year to enjoy the party, King Momo receives the crown as the world’s greatest party host, but King Momo also reminds everyone to be responsible. One of the founding pillars of the festival was to indulge your sexual desires; ex-King Momo, Alex de Oliveira reminded everyone to use condoms, referring to them as “Carnival’s greatest costume.” To aid this public service announcement and to avoid the hospitals being filled in nine months time, the government hands out millions of condoms at the party’s commencement, every year.
In the past, the paper mache doll used to be burned signifying the end of the party. This tradition has now been forgotten and in almost magical fashion, King Momo disappears as the party is in full swing to let the festivities continue – there is no longer any strict, official end to the party, and there is certainly no fat lady.