Carnival culture

Europe’s biggest party takes place this month,Bloggerby takes you on a guided tour of the island’s vibrant carnival

The biggest party in Europe, the carnival of Santa Cruz comes second only to Río on the world stage. Every year in the run up to lent hordes of people flock to the island’s capital for two weeks of non-stop dancing, singing, drinking and general merriment. Musicians and dancers come over from Latin America to inject a little Latin fever in the proceedings.

Carnival is celebrated on the streets as revellers old and young come together for a whirlwind event that consists of colourful processions, outlandish costumes and very loud music.

Carnival origins

The Latin word ‘carnival’ means ‘farewell to the flesh’ and describes the Catholic practise of giving up meat during the 40 days of Lent.
Invented in Italy, carnival fever spread throughout the Catholic countries of Europe during the 15th century. Since the port of Cádiz had close trading links with Venice, it’s no surprise that it was the first Spanish town to hold its own carnival. The tradition was later taken to the Canary Islands by Spanish conquistadors.

Lampooning the establishment

The authorities frowned on what they saw as a frenzy of disorder and disturbance. The custom of wearing masks during carnival meant that criminals were difficult to catch – a fact that led King Charles I to a pass a law in 1523 banning people from wearing masks.

Franco took things a leap further by banning carnival altogether. Carnival continued to be celebrated clandestinely in Tenerife from 1945. In 1967 Santa Cruz celebrated carnival, disguised under the name of ‘The Winter Carnival’. The dictator had a bit of a soft spot for the island and mostly turned a blind eye to the street celebrations (Franco had spent some time in Tenerife in the months leading to his seize of power). That said, the police often arrested those caught donning masks. One year such a large number of people were arrested, there wasn’t enough space in the local prison to hold them all so the city’s bullring was used as a temporary jailhouse.

Franco also put a stop to people dressing up as religious or military figures – a custom that was reabsorbed into the traditional celebrations following his death in 1976. With the fall of the regime, carnival was once again permitted.

These days the only conflict that remains is the rivalry between the capital cities of the archipelago’s two biggest islands: Santa Cruz, in Tenerife and Las Palmas, in Gran Canaria. Each year the two cities vie to outdo each other by holding the biggest, most spectacular carnival.

The theme for 2005 is ‘big musical productions’. Every year a spectacular stage (with a price tag that hovers around the €300,000 mark) is built in Plaza de España – the venue for many carnival events. Created by set designer Carlos Sáenz, this year’s stage is straight out of a 1920’s Hollywood musical.

The theme also extends to the costumes worn by carnival goers. For inspiration, head to your local video shop and rent out your favourite musical.

For a show-stopping outfit there’s Chicago; for a getup that’s racy but fun you can’t go wrong with Moulin Rouge. Alternatively, can opt for something retro and style yourself on a character from Grease.

For cross-dressers there’s a whole host of leading ladies to emulate – the less obvious the better, Maria from The Sound of Music and Dorothy from The Wizard of OZ would both make very amusing drag queens.

For children, there’s an endless supply of flicks to get ideas from, such as Annie, Bugsy Malone and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

You can find themed carnival outfits and cheap wigs at toyshops throughout the island; rummage through the sales (and the back of your wardrobe) for individual items or be a complete carnival swot and get your costume made by a local seamstress (costurera).

If you don’t manage to get a fantastic themed costume together, don’t despair. When it comes to deciding on your carnival getup, it’s not essential you stick to the theme. So, if you’ve always wanted to dress up as a mermaid or a big fluffy rabbit, now’s the chance.

Carnival royals

The Queen election gala is one of carnival’s most important carnival events. Taking place on the Wednesday before Shrove Tuesday, this televised event is essential a beauty pageant but with very extravagant costumes. A group of young women circle the main stage one by one, while a panel of judges select the final winner. There are two smaller version of the event, for both children and senior citizens.

One of the most important aspects the lucky hopefuls are judged on is how gracefully they parade around the stage – not an easy task when you consider that their dresses weigh up to 60kg and require wheels for mobility. Contestants spend months at the gym lifting weights in preparation.

Musical mockery

Humorous musical groups known as ‘Murgas’ wear clown-inspired costumes as they sing satirical songs that put an amusing spin on current political and social grievances. Even if you can’t catch the sarcastic lyrics, it’s just as enjoyable to take in the energy and colour of the performances.

A grand opening

The Cabalgata anunciadora (Announcing cavalcade) marks the start of carnival and is one of its wildest nights. The event starts with a procession of colourful floats, Brazilian dancing groups and bands from Latin America, all led by the elected carnival queens and their ladies-in-waiting. Once the entourage reaches the seafront. The commencement of carnival is marked by a spectacular burst of fireworks; then the party begins as revellers take to the streets for a night of dancing and merriment.


The Coso is considered the top carnival event. Taking place on Shrove Tuesday at four o’clock in the afternoon, it involves another vibrant troupe of floats that dance their way along the seafront. The lengthy event ends with a fireworks display at the port.

Funeral for a sardine

One of the most popular carnival events is held on Ash Wednesday, which sees a surreal slow-moving ‘funeral’ procession make its way through the city.

Originally this parade marked the end of carnival, but these days the celebrations go on for a few more days.

The Entierro de la sardina (Burial of the sardine) is an event dripping with irony. The idea is to poke fun at the church while bidding a tearful farewell to carnival. Accompanied by dismal funeral music, a crowd of wailing mourners (many of them men in drag) follow a huge sardine made of wood and paper as it’s paraded through the streets. Bishops and priests wave rude implements at passers-by in mock blessings, while hairy men dress up as suspender-wearing nuns.

The procession is followed by a dramatic cremation, held near Plaza de España, during which the mourners wail with inconsolable grief.

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