Carnivals: beginning the year on your left foot


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For an Ecuadorian, the official, Spanish Academy dictionary description of the word carnival- “a popular festivity consisting of masquerades, parades, dance and other boisterous rejoicing” – suffers from a terrible omission: where’s the water?! In our eyes, there is no Carnival without this essential element… there is no party without “playing carnival”.

What does coincide, however, is that both dates are marked by the new moon. And both dates, depending on the culture, represent the beginning of spring, perhaps the true beginning of the year.

In 2016, Carnival coincided with the beginning of the Chinese year. It does not always happen like this. This year, for example, Carnival will be held on February 26 and the start of Year of the Rooster, on January 28.

Carnival is a lot about beginning… and the beginning in our carnivalesque societies is set to break the calm of January and early February with a degree of frenzy. Tradition even dictates that it is permissible to overdo it: overindulge in food, drink, passion, dance and general partying… Get the devil out, they say, because starting the following Wednesday- that is, the day after the four days of Carnival – one is to enter absolute abstinence (Lent), which is marked by Catholics staining their foreheads with ash. This Ash Wednesday and the forty days that ensue are a time in which one must avoid all ties to the flesh (la carne), metaphorically speaking as well, until Easter… the death of Jesus Christ, the arrival of the bunny with his chocolate egg basket, or, as agro-cosmological terms would have it: the height of spring represented by the first harvest of the year.

The fiestas of prohibition

How did authority fare with the holiday of holidays, the holiday founded on losing control? According to Christianity itself, the event offers people a (very small) window to do what you wish and ignore religious rule — before turning back into statues of spirituality, prudence and temperance which one must respect the rest of the year.

Kings and other ruling bodies have struggled with Carnival since time immemorial. Throughout history, both real and moral outrage have caused a systematic prohibition of one or more of its festive elements, from the erotic dances to the use of masks. King Carlos III of Spain himself was forced to emphasize that he had never allowed Carnival to be celebrated in his Spanish American colonies. Colonial governors were particularly hard on the throwing of water and other substances bit. “The rude custom of throwing water and bran, and other filth, at one another, without distinction of state or sex” would lead the viceroy of Rio de La Plata, Pedro de Cevallos, to prohibit the festivities altogether. This practice persisted, however, and even with the recent prohibitions of our current government in Ecuador, which has had much more incidence in cities than in villages…

…the Carnival of throwing water, flour, eggs, paint and everything in between, is still very much alive.

In Spain, Carnival as a popular manifestation has miraculously persisted against the harsh hand of the many axes of power that have tried to eliminate it from collective memory, including Franco, who forbade it for 40 years. In our distant Ecuador, however, it’s war! In a not too distant past, I remember, groups of young and old — parents, children and their grandchildren — using the city as their battlefield: whoever was unfortunate enough to cross the path of these water-throwing battalions would literally get soaked. People would be thrown into water fountains before getting smeared with eggs, flour, and other unknown substances! A game that quickly got out of hand. Families would invite relatives over and as soon as they sat down at the table, food would be thrown every which way. That Carnival, that momentary madness, expressed in Ecuador more through this “rude custom” than through the lasciviousness of erotic dances or mischievous masks, has always been a game, as people smile and laugh after being attacked. The buckets, the water balloons, the water pistols are readied as the country takes on its own, very intimate, version of debauchery: payback with cold water to whoever started the battle.


It is general consensus that the word Carnival comes from the Roman expression “carne vale”: goodbye meat! But where does throwing water fit in the picture? It has historically been a central practice to Carnival from Spain and Venezuela to Argentina and Uruguay. And Ecuador maintains the tradition despite the many prohibitions; a fight that in many of these other countries has been lost in favor of parades, masquerades and other customs also associated with the celebration. We could go back to celebrations such as the Carrus Navalis of Ancient Greece to celebrate the new year, in which floats in the shape of boats (on which erotic dances were performed) would parade throughout the city. And we can even go back further to the festivities in honor of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fecundity – queen of earthly cycles whose element was water and whose astrological symbol was the moon. We do not rule out that throwing water may symbolize purification, or a wish for prosperity, since it coincides with the time when people irrigate the first sowings of the year. But we are also as convinced that behind it all lie the ancient festivities of humanity’s earliest civilizations…

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