History of Carnival in Brazil

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Carnival is one of the most important national events of Brazil - but where did this tradition come from? In this lesson, we'll explore the history of Brazil's Carnival and see how it has changed over time into the celebration we know and love today.


In the modern world, we tend to think of ourselves as pretty good partiers. The truth is, we're amateurs compared to some people throughout history. In many societies, life was hard and to keep people from going crazy, certain times of year were designated as times to let loose, go nuts, and party it up. It's what historians call a safety valve - a way to release all the social pressures that build up in society during the year. Perhaps the most famous of these is the event called Carnival, and perhaps the most famous example of Carnival is found in Brazil. Brazil's Carnival is a roughly 5-day party, ending on Ash Wednesday, a Christian holiday that denotes the beginning of Lent. It's a big deal to many people to this day, and a piece of their heritage, connecting them to ancestors who really knew how to party.

Carnival is a celebration unlike any other

European Origins

To understand Brazil's Carnival, called Carnaval in Portuguese, we need to examine the roots of this tradition in Europe. Technically, the event began as a pagan holiday in ancient Greece and Rome, during which masters and slaves would swap clothes, the rich would wait on the poor, and basically everyone would get drunk and toss all social rules out the window. Like we said earlier, it was a safety valve to release all the social pressures that build up in a society where some are more powerful than others.

Carnival as we know it, however, is a Catholic holiday. The 40 days prior to Easter Sunday, the most important day of the Christian calendar, compose a period called Lent. Lent is traditionally observed by fasting, prayer, solemnity, and the voluntary abandonment of earthly pleasures in spiritual preparation for Easter. Formal Catholics do not eat meat on Fridays in this period as well. So, right before Lent began, European Catholics began hosting massive parties - one last shebang before fasting and meditating for 40 days (not including Sundays, which are already set aside for religious observation). Just as with the ancient Romans and Greeks, many social rules were abandoned in these parties. The poor could dress in clothes only allowed for the rich, masks were worn to hide identities, and no one had to bow or serve a lord.

Carnival in Brazil

The pre-Lent party was an important ritual for Catholic societies, and in 1723 Portuguese immigrants to the Brazilian colony brought their custom with them. At the time, they called it the Entrudo. The Entrudo was originally celebrated with food, music, and what was basically a giant water fight. People could attack each other with buckets of water or mud without warning. Even the wealthy aristocrats were vulnerable to these attacks. In Entrudo, everyone was more or less equal.

During the Entrudo, anyone was liable to get wet

Over the years, the Entrudo became Carnival, and the water fights were replaced with massive parades, dancing, and elaborate costumes during masquerade balls. The spirit of freedom was maintained, however, as social rules were cast off. In fact, at certain points in Brazil's history, while everything else was being censored by military dictators, Carnival became a way for people to openly protest against the government through masks, costumes, and performances. Carnival was becoming such an important part of Brazilian life that even dictators wouldn't risk limiting it.

Modern Carnival

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Carnival as we know it began to take shape, but that transformation was not complete until after Brazil abolished slavery and Afro-Brazilians were able to really participate. Brazil had a massive slave population, and African traditions of masks, parades, and most importantly rhythm redefined the event. Around 1888, former slaves near Rio de Janeiro brought African and Portuguese-Brazilian traditions together and developed the musical genre of samba. In 1917, samba officially became part of Carnival for the first time.

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