From the National Geographic book Sacred Places of a Lifetime
Mardi Gras, New Orleans
Napoleon may have sold Louisiana to the Americans, but French traditions endured, most notably Mardi Gras (Fat, or Shrove, Tuesday), the raucous Carnival that really defines New Orleans. Beginning with a masked ball on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6), festivities pick up steam all the way to the start of Lent, culminating in five days of parties.
Carnival, Trinidad and Tobago
Trinidad and Tobago celebrates Carnival the way it was meant to be: not a big, slick, commercial stadium show, but a party of the people—a spontaneous outpouring that plays out in flashy costumes, parades, dance shows, food festivals, and battle-of-the-steel-band competitions. The French launched Carnival in the late 1700s as a masquerade ball for the island elite, but the event soon grew into an egalitarian street spectacle. Over the years, immigrants of all faiths have added to the hoopla, and today Carnival is a multicultural extravaganza.
It’s the devils who come marching in when Martinique revs into Carnival mode, a pre-Lenten celebration dedicated to all things mischievous. Five days of parties and processions ensue, and dressing in drag for mock weddings is the norm. Shrove Tuesday is Red Devils Day, when red-and-black costumes are donned for a fiendish parade through the streets of Fort-de-France. Carnival culminates with Ash Wednesday’s symbolic mourning of King Carnival, or Vaval, whose effigy arrives at a funeral pyre via a parade of floats and dancing she-devils. His death marks the end of the year’s merriment.
Fiesta de las Flores y las Frutas, Ecuador
Set against a backdrop of snowcapped Andes, Ambato’s Festival of Flowers and Fruits pays homage to the agricultural bounty of the region with flamboyant costumes, elaborate floats, fireworks, and lots of peach-flavored wine. On the Saturday before Lent, Mass is held outside Ambato’s whitewashed cathedral.
Carnival, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The world’s most famous Carnival is an extravagant four-day celebration finishing on Shrove Tuesday. One of the highlights is the lively Rio Samba Parade, taking place at the impressive 70,000-seat Sambódromo stadium.
Patras Carnival, Greece
A meeting of myth and reality, Patras Carnival draws its inspiration from ancient Greece––in particular, Dionysus, the god of wine. St Anthony’s Day (January 17) is the official start of a Carnival season that stretches into early March, finishing with a lavish parade and a kite-flying competition.
Carnevale, Venice, Italy
An event that inspired many others around the world, the flamboyant Venetian Carnevale originated in the 13th century and reached a decadent peak during the Renaissance. Although rooted in Catholicism, the Carnival has always been a secular extravaganza, an excuse for Venetians to act out their fantasies behind the anonymity of disguise.
The six-day Fasching Festival takes place all over southern Germany and is a joyous affair. Each village or district has its own unique costume and the variety is astounding—spiders and witches, animals and jesters. The high point comes on the Monday before Ash Wednesday, when a rowdy pageant of fools is followed by an all-night Carnival ball.
Karneval, Cologne, Germany
The Carnival season begins on November 11 and flows all the way through winter to the eve of Lent. In Cologne alone there are more than 500 Carnival events including parades, balls, concerts, and traditional variety shows.
Carnival, Sitges, Spain
For one week each year, sun-splashed Sitges transforms from a sleepy beach town into a Carnival heaven. Festivities kick off on Fat Thursday with a waterfront ceremony to raise King Carnestoltes from the dead, and ends with a procession of thousands marching through the medieval quarter.