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Beyond the celebration: What is the cultural history of Carnival?

Carnival's origins vary from country to country, and even differ across the islands that make up the USVI.
Beyond the celebration: What is the cultural history of Carnival?
Posted at 9:24 PM, Mar 29, 2024

From Canada to Rio — on just about every continent there's some kind of Carnival celebration. It's known as the world's biggest celebration.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, Carnival is a birthright.

"I have fond memories and my dad was huge too. He's like 6-4. And you know the crowds back then, Way more people came to the parades And he would put me on top of his shoulder. So I always had, you know, a bird's eye view," USVI Governor Albert Bryan Jr. told Scripps News.

Beyond the festivities of modern times, there is a deep history, whose very traditions are rooted in resistance.

"There is a lot of French influence into the music. There's a lot of Hispanic influence into the music and in some instances the dance. But when you get to the roots of carnival, it's definitely steeped in African spirituality," said historian and content creator Gabrielle Querrard. 

And amid the celebration, there's a dual mission to reclaim those origins.

"I do not believe that Carnival is solely about the big feathers and all the pretty costumes," writer and Carnival participant Jamal Potter told Scripps News.

"If we think that our culture has been bastardized. It is our responsibility to fix it," said historian and Know Your Caribbean founder Fiona Compton.

Carnival's origins vary from country to country, and even differs across the islands that make up the USVI.

In St. Thomas, most trace its official start to 1912. But some historians say its unofficial start goes back to the 1800s when enslaved people took European Christian holidays as a time to celebrate and infuse their own culture.

"There's so many things that we do, things that we call superstitions or just cultural nuances and so on that come direct from the motherland. That's a huge influence that's not recognized," said Compton.

Like the music, dances and masqueraders.

"What people consider the cheesiest dance, the 'limbo'. The limbo has spiritual practices. This comes from the crossing over the Atlantic, right? So you're crossing from one life into the into the next," Compton said.

"And it was also how when, say, people would show off their agility when they're maneuvering on slave ships," she said.

Then there are the stilt walkers, or the Moko Jumbie.

"The Moko Jumbies are a sacred form of masquerading for us. They are stilt walkers, so to speak, but they also represent the spirit of Moko Jumbie, which is a protective spirit that comes to the Caribbean from continental Africa and is maintained in our tradition," said Hadiya Sewer, director of the Virgin Islands Caribbean Cultural Center at the University of the Virgin Islands.

SEE MORE: Mardi Gras traditions date back centuries

Native islanders say there's a deeper meaning behind everything.

"To have elaborate dresses, to have elaborate gowns, to have basically elaborate anything was basically mocking the slave owners," said Potter.

Tenese Lockhart says her grandfather was among those led by former Congressman Ron de Lugo, who helped revived the celebration in the 1950s, gathering traditions from other places and making it their own.

"My grandfather didn't want it to be something where we're outcasting because before Carnival was like only for the rich, you know, he wanted to stick to a cultural aspect where everyone can partake in it," said Lockhart.

She says she's honoring those roots — reflecting on the deeper meanings of the day.

"You see how a person is making a costume, What went into the costume? We have different themes. And when you realize, Ok, this does have like a spiritual, cultural undertone, we can respect it," she said.

As the celebration grew, the traditions evolved, some say for the good.

"When we take what we inherit, and we continue to add our creativity and continue to see it through, it gives us a sense of purpose and power," noted Sewer.

However, there is a growing concern beyond the USVI that the Carnival celebration worldwide is becoming inaccessible for some there's also an emergence of those who don't know its history.

"Carnival in a way has become very commercialized and it's slipping away from the very people that it was supposed to honor," said Potter.

The people we met say as modern changes meet history, maintaining a balance will have to start with the tiniest islanders and beyond.

"If you don't pass on the generational aspects of things, you lose it, Then somebody else is going to start telling you your history. Just like we were told that we were slaves, when we were kings and queens," said Lockhart.

"There's a certain cultural erosion that's happening, especially as gentrification continues to occur at very rapid rate in this region. And so if we don't hold true to our values, if we don't hold true to our culture, we are going to find that we're going to be pushed out in more ways than one," said Querrard.

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