We think of Mardi Gras and Carnival as a good excuse for late winter debauchery. And while they are that (yee-haw!), the ritual of Fat Tuesday began as a last hurrah before Ash Wednesday, which marked the beginning of Lent, the Christian season of sacrifice before Easter. And while Venice, New Orleans, and Rio may get the most attention, they're not the only ones who know how to do this party. Parades, mascots, and dances may be universal pleasures, but in these seven cities around the world, Carnival traditions range from high energy to downright wacky.
And you've never heard of any of them. Let's get the party started.
ORANGES IN BINCHE, BELGIUM
UNESCO declared Belgium's Carnaval de Binche a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity." It must have something to do with the one thousand Gilles — men wearing medieval folkloric costumes, with the requisite clogs, bells, and eerie masks — who hand out oranges to parade-goers on Shrove Tuesday. By afternoon, they've switched to ostrich-plumed headdresses and participants are tossing around oranges. Then come the fireworks. Then the dancing until dawn. And then the long hangover of Lent.
LOVE AND PRIDE IN SYDNEY
Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival celebrate Australia's LGBTQI community in an array of events throughout the city. In addition to huge feathered and leathered parades and giant dance parties featuring big-name musicians and DJs, there are comedy acts, art exhibitions, visits with wildlife, and something called Disco Shopping that, frankly, we think should become a global export ASAP. That there's something for everyone makes it clear that the event is all about inclusion, diversity, and love.
DANCING WITH KINGS IN GOA, INDIA
Goa Carnaval, the only pre-Lent festival in India, is a holdover from five centuries of Portuguese rule over the tiny coastal state. Understandably, the traditions remain very Rio in flavor, with parades, floats, and samba. King Momo, the King of Carnaval usually played by a prominent community figure, kicks off celebrations with a huge procession. The party concludes with the red and black dance in which women in red tops and black skirts and men in red shirts and black trousers dance in a grand parade.
BIKINIS IN SNOWBALLS IN QUEBEC CITY, CANADA
Okay, techincally it ended before Lent began, but because the Quebec Winter Carnival is the largest winter carnival in the world, we want to mention it. What's not lo love about icy canoes racing down the St. Lawrence River and giant snow sculptures built all over the city? The festival's guest of honor is the Bonhomme, a chap dressed as a snowman wearing a trademark red arrowhead sash. Visitors can see him at his Ice Palace, a huge castle made of some 300 tons of ice. The best event may be the St-Hubert Snow Bath, a giant snowball fight among brave souls wearing nothing but bathing suits.
FLOWERS IN NICE, FRANCE
Hands down, the highlight of the fifteen-day festival on the French Riviera is the Flower Parade in Nice. Floats covered in flowers carry costumed ladies who throw flowers of all kinds (gladioli, mimosas, daisies, roses, carnations) into the crowd. Crafty attendees assemble whole bouquets at the end of the parade, when the ladies start plucking flowers from the floats and tossing them as well.
JUMPING WITH FOOLS IN ROTTWEILL, GERMANY
The tradition of Narrensprung translates as "fools jump." And in fact, this German event sees marchers in carved wooden masks — many of which have been passed down through families for generations — parade through the streets. When a certain song is played, they jump up and down, ringing the bells on their costumes. (Here's the German site.)
RACING WITH PANCAKES IN ENGLAND
Throughout the United Kingdom, Shrove Tuesday is Pancake Day. Why? It started with the historically-charged ingredients: Tuesday was the last day before Lent to eat rich foods like eggs and fat. The ingredients also had meaning: eggs symbolize creation; milk was purity. Somewhere along the line, tossing pancakes in a frying pan while running down the streets became the thing to do. (Oh, you wacky Brits.) The most well known Pancake Race is that of Olney, Buckinghamshire, a tradition that began when a housewife in 1445, upon hearing the shriving bell while preparing pancakes, ran to the church, apron on and skillet in hand. (Oh, you wacky Brits.) Today's participants race each other while wearing aprons and flipping a pancake in a pan.