The Guadeloupe Carnaval

Carnaval is a major cultural event in Guadeloupe, the Caribbean archipelago/French department where I grew up. Festivities are loosely tied to the Christian calendar, roughly lasting from Epiphanie (January 6, the proverbial “12th day of Christmas”) and ending on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. It’s a wild season of celebration full of music, costumes, and — of course — lots of great food, including beignets. I miss home even more during Carnaval as there is nothing similar to it in Lansing.

It actually starts on January 1 with a parade of the “groupes à peau,” who bring offerings to the sea. This tradition, called “ben demaré,” symbolizes leaving behind issues from the past year and asking for better luck for the coming year. Then over the subsequent weeks leading up to Mardi Gras (which falls between mid-February and early March), there are parades in cities around the island. Some of these parades are expected, others are impromptu.

Carnaval reaches fever pitch with three spectacular parades between Shrove Sunday (the Sunday before Lent) and Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent). The Carnaval groups showcase the results of weeks of hard work with elaborate floats and intricate dance numbers. Each year there is a new theme, and groups fight to get the first prize.

On Shrove Sunday, Carnaval parades compete in the afternoon in Pointe-à-Pitre, the largest city in Guadeloupe. The next evening, the parade is held in Basse-Terre, the island’s capital, with costumes and floats designed to light up at night. Then on Tuesday — the big day, Mardi Gras — it’s another afternoon affair, with another parade in Basse-Terre. The festivities end on Ash Wednesday, and an effigy of Vaval, the King of Carnival, is burned.

The uniqueness of Guadeloupe is seen on Ash Wednesday as the streets are filled with revelers dressed up in black and white. Contrary to the previous days, everybody is invited to be part of this parade. It’s not a contest — the only rule is to be dressed in black and white; most people just use whatever they already have in their closets. Everybody has another chance to perform without being part of a group on Tuesday during a pajama parade in multiple cities of Guadeloupe early in the morning.

Then, with one exception, everything gets subdued on the island until Easter. There are no real celebrations of any kind but there is a built-in release day: Mid-Lent Thursday. Falling exactly halfway between Ash Wednesday and Easter, it allows everyone who’s been “good for Lents” to revive the Carnaval mood for one day only, albeit with a mischievous twist. Celebrants dress up in red and black costumes, depicting themselves as devils.

Carnaval in Guadeloupe is a rich celebration based on more than a century of tradition. It would be impossible to try to recreate that in Lansing, but hopefully by sharing details about it — and sharing beignets with all my classes — I can inspire an appreciation for this special aspect of French culture here in mid-Michigan.