6 Carnival Traditions from Around the World

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From the masked intrigues of Venice to the vibrant pulse of Rio de Janeiro, Carnival is celebrated the world over. In honor of this year’s Fat Tuesday, here are a few Carnival traditions you may not have heard about.

1. Joe Cain Day

Though New Orleans’s Mardi Gras is arguably the most famous along the Gulf Coast, Mobile, Alabama lays a proud claim to hosting the first Mardi Gras celebration in the United States. However, the local Mardi Gras celebrations dissolved in the aftermath of the Civil War until Joe Cain revived the tradition in 1867. According to legend, Cain dressed himself as a fictional Indian chief, Slacabamarinico, and marched through the city with a group of ragtag musicians who buoyed the city’s spirits. In subsequent years, bystanders were invited to step into the streets and join the parade on Joe Cain Day, the Sunday before Mardi Gras. Though the parade’s size is now more carefully controlled, the spirit of inclusion and resurgence continues.

2. Weiberfastnacht

Cologne, Germany holds one of the most famous Karneval celebrations in Europe. The festivities begin on November 11 at 11:11, dragging the holiday out for so long that it’s often called the Fifth Season. Here, on the Thursday before Shrove Tuesday, women traditionally cut men’s ties in a gesture challenging male dominance.

3. Užgavėnės

On Shrove Tuesday, many Lithuanians celebrate by burning a female effigy called Moré to signify the defeat of winter. The event is followed by symbolic battles between winter and spring that emphasize a promise of renewal. The celebration, which has pagan historical roots as well as Christian inspiration, often includes other costumed characters and features pancakes as its traditional dish.

4. Hanging Donkeys

One town in Catalonia adds an unexpected decoration to its Carnival festivities. Legend says a donkey was once sent up the narrow stairway to eat grass from the bell tower of the cathedral in Solsona. When the donkey balked, someone put a rope around its neck and tried to haul it the rest of the way. Now, stuffed donkeys are hung from the tower during Carnaval.

5. Water Fights

In Ecuador, local Carnaval celebrations feature mischievous games probably based on traditions the Huarangas Indians established. Contemporary revelers should be on guard: diablitos may be waiting to douse them with balloons filled with water or flour.

6. Courir de Mardi Gras

In Cajun communities throughout the prairies of Louisiana, Mardi Gras customs take on a colorful twist. Unlike the elaborately planned New Orleans celebration just to the east, where Mardi Gras societies control who can march in parades or attend balls, Cajun revelers invite the local community to don patchwork costumes and traipse through rural areas going door to door. Traditionally, participants can take on one of two roles: either that of capitane or courir. The capitane carries a whip and keeps the courir in order, while the courir goes from house to house begging for food and trying to cause as much mischief as possible. Together, the group collects whatever food the townspeople offer: sacks of potatoes, bags of rice, or random vegetables. If the group is lucky, a family will toss them a live chicken to chase and cook. At the end of the day, the group retires to make a gumbo from their bounty and, hopefully, to dance to a good Cajun fiddler until the sun comes up.