After a couple of months of living in Spain, Halloween spirit was in full swing at the primary schools where I work. Halloween is still relatively new to Spain, only gaining major traction in the past four or five years. Seeing my friends at home get into the spirit with their costumes and parties on Instagram was probably the first thing that started to make me homesick.
Here’s the thing… Halloween is my favorite holiday. Period. Anytime I can go full-goth without question, I’m going to be a happy camper. So back to Carnival…
I was discussing Halloween’s rise to Spanish popularity with some Spanish teachers, when they informed me ‘Carnival is actually when the real fun begins’.
I’m thinking to myself, ‘are they talking about Carnival, like in Rio de Janeiro? That’s a thing here?’ Clearly, I didn’t know too much about the celebration up until this point. But as soon as they broke it down for me, just how big Carnival is across Spain, I was hooked.
Carnival is essentially Fat Tuesday… that’s right, Mardi Gras. The celebration we have before the 40 days of Lent begins. And the 40 days of Lent, leading up to Easter (which is another huge celebration of it’s own). I felt ridiculous for not knowing Carnival would be celebrated here given it’s connection to Lent and Easter. Spain is a largely Catholic country, so it’s perfectly explainable.
The celebration is quite comparable to Mardi Gras, but on a (much) larger scale. Partying in the streets, tons of booze, loud music, dancing, costumes. In Spain, the celebrations can be found all over. But it’s not all green, purple and gold here.
Carnival entails costumes of EVERY variety, from horror movie characters to animals to Disney characters to famous people. The party spans over two weekends and lasts until dawn. The festivities can be found in big cities as well as tiny villages.
While Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, is known for being the Carnival capital of Spain, other areas have quite the reputation for holding the best parties: Cadiz in the region of Andalucia, Sitges in the region of Catalonia, Toledo in the region of Madrid. Of course there are so many more, and surely celebrations in each region and major cities of Madrid and Barcelona.
And in the region of Murcia… there are quite a few places to choose from for your colorful Carnival experience: Aguilas, a charming town right on the water and perhaps the most talked about location; Lorca, a small town about an hour outside of the city; Totana, a lesser discussed but apparently underrated location; and Cabezo de Torres, a small town only ten minutes from the Murcia’s city center!
I wound up changing my plans so many times with friends that I found myself in Cabezo de Torres, where the ‘smaller’ Carnival is, on the final night with seven lovely ‘pinup girls’ as my party buddies. The ‘pinup girls’ were actually the teachers I work with at a primary school! And the ‘smaller’ party was actually one of the biggest parties I’d ever been to.
What to expect at Carnival, you may ask? First off, a lot of drinking in the street! I think this is one of the most novel experiences in Spain. Spaniards may laugh because I get so excited about this, but you just can’t do it in the US! Maybe on occasion, in Nola, at a block party or during some sort of festival, but the reality is, we just can’t be casual about drinking in public in most places in the US. So, yes, this is one of those ‘little things’ to take joy in in Spain.
Music and dancing
Wear your comfortable shoes! Another reveling moment for me was seeing my coworkers, dancing it up with no f**** to be given. With me being the youngest there by (at least) a few years, it’s quite funny that I was probably the most reserved and concerned about professionalism – turns out, this wasn’t a concern at all.
Coworkers here are much more relaxed and down to earth about their relationships outside of the workplace, which is so refreshing. This is a major cultural difference between Spain and the US as well, which largely comes to fruition during celebrations. I think this has to do with the fact that Spaniards (and Europeans in general) are a bit better at keeping their shit together when they drink (yet another cultural difference that could be elaborated on in a post of its own).
Additionally, at Cabezo de Torres, I heard more than reggaeton blasting from the speakers. Plenty of Latin-inluenced music and American pop music.
At Carnival, groups dress up with similar costumes and participate in a parade, using floats and/or dance numbers and their own speakers for music. Some are meant to be funny, some are meant to be sexy and some are just indescribable. For instance, I saw a group of people fully dressed as the horror character, Pennywise, from Steven King’s ‘It’ proceeding through the streets to techno music!
The first person I talked to about Carnival explained that you could dress up as ANYTHING. It can be as simple or elaborate as you like. I thought it was all sequined leotards and feather-y tail pieces, though this wasn’t a common costume for festival-goers. I went with a take on David Bowie’s iconic painted face and created a shirt to look like the Rebel Rebel record sleeve. While I had some concern that people wouldn’t understand the costume, I still received many compliments and even saw another Bowie in the crowd!
Don’t be surprised to encounter a lot of cultural ‘references’ in the form of costumes. Some of my fellow Americans abroad and I have discussed our reactions to the frequent use of native American, ‘Hindu’ and ‘gypsy’ costumes here. Given the politically correct climate in the US we’ve grown accustomed to in recent years, we were a bit surprised to see these displays.
The fact is, degrees of PC and interpretations of what is PC vary across the world. This was very insightful for us and at has at least sparked interesting and valuable discussions among ourselves and with our new friends abroad. While I’m not one to stir things up, I know that this is something my friends and family back home would find relevant to my cultural exchange abroad and would be interested to hear about, so I wanted to mention it here.
On a lighter note, check out this adorable four-legged family of Minions I saw when I visited Aguilas for the day!
Lastly, and what I’ve been dying to share… here’s what you can expect in the preceding weeks leading up to Carnival (if you’re an English teacher)!
Even the kiddos here get in on the fun. At one of my primary schools, a Carnival celebration was held with the theme of children’s cinema. Each class chose a movie and came to school dressed as characters from their film. We had Beauty and the Beast, Ratatouille, Snow White, Grease, Mary Poppins, Harry Potter, 101 Dalmatians, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. I was thrilled to have been asked to help with decorations! I drew life-sized characters on paper, as well as pieces to be turned into costumes and masks, and the children colored them in.
It’s amazing what the faculty will do to make sure the students have some fun. Even the teachers dressed up! I made this popcorn cart and matching costumes for a group of teachers to push around and hand out snacks.
So here’s what you can expect from Carnival in Spain, especially as an American English teacher in Murcia. Where have you celebrated Carnival? What was your costume? How was your experience similar? Different? Where do you plan to celebrate next and why? Answer in the comments!