Carnival in Portugal: ‘Life lasts for two days, carnival lasts for three!’, Festivals

Carnival in Portugal: ‘Life lasts for two days, carnival lasts for three!’

Carnival or Entrudo (Shrovetide), as it is more commonly referred to in Portugal, is a festival ranging from the Friday before Lent to Quarta-feira de Cinzas (Ash Wednesday) which takes place in February or March. The weather is usually cold and often wet, even in the south of the country, and as a result in many places you may not see the stereotypical carnival scenes of samba dancers in minimalist costumes and extravagant floats. Carnival celebrations in Portugal are very unique to the country and, more specifically, unique to the various regions where they take place. Many of the celebrations originate from pagan times when it was believed that at the end of the winter evil spirits needed to be driven out so that spring could return and carnival was a celebration to drive out these spirits and herald a return to fertility. It also marked the start of a period with very little food as the winter stocks were running out or going off and food wouldn’t be available again until the spring. In Christian times it became a period of over-indulgence before the 40 days of abstinence during Lent. It is generally thought that the word ‘carnival’ is from the Latin carnem levāre (to stop eating meat) and a popular dish served in all regions of the country during Shrovetide is the meat-based feijoada, a hearty stew of pork (using all parts of the pig!), sausage and white or red beans. Throughout the country Shrovetide has certain recurring themes: there is a lord of misrule who on the last day of carnival is tried and sentenced to death; people play practical jokes on other people; the villagers and townsfolk dress up in costumes; those in authority are mocked; and there is music, dancing and a feast.

Norte region

In the north of the country there is a Celtic influence to the carnival celebrations which can be heard in the bagpipe, drum and fiddle music. Masked men known as Caretos, run through the streets and symbolic effigies are burned, such as in the Entrudo Chocalheiro in Podence in the Trás-os-Montes region in the north-east of the country, where men dressed in vivid costumes run around the streets of the village on Domingo Gordo (the Sunday before Lent) and Terça-feira Gorda (Shrove Tuesday), accosting any women, old or young, and doing a strange dance which involves shaking the cowbells around their waist (chocalheiro describes a person wearing a cowbell). Their costumes of red, green and yellow wool, bright red masks, cowbells and wooden sticks represent the devil and on Shrove Tuesday an effigy of the devil is burnt on a bonfire.

A similar figure appears in the Entrudo dos Compadres in Lazarim, in the Douro region, where men wear enormous carved wooden masks often with horns coming from the top designed to look frightening, along with costumes similar to  those in Podence, often made of natural-coloured wool, straw, foliage or even lace. In both places the masks hide the person’s identity and allow them to behave badly. A popular proverb sums this up: ‘É Carnaval, ninguém leva a mal!’ (It’s carnival, no one will be offended!). In the preceding weeks the compadres (the young men of the village) are pitted against the comadres (the young women of the village) in various rituals which subvert traditional male and female roles and revolve around the carnival preparations, including making costumes, creating effigies and writing verse poems. Masks made from alderwood by artisan wood carvers are begun months before. It’s not altogether surprising that these subversive traditions were banned during the years of the dictatorship, as were all pagan festivals. The main event is on Shrove Tuesday when everyone gathers in the village square to watch a piece of theatre in which a young man and woman of the village stand on a balcony with two effigies of a male and female figure behind them (representing the compadres and comadres) and read their ‘wills’ which are verse poems poking fun at members of the opposite sex. Each four-line verse is punctuated by a drum being beat and the ringing of cowbells. People carrying the effigies then lead a procession to an area when the effigies are attached to a wire and set alight. Fireworks inside the effigies explode and they spin around like a Catherine wheel before fizzling out. This marks the end of the Entrudo.

In Lindoso in the very north of the Minho region (close to the border with Galician Spain) the celebrations revolve around the funeral of Pai Velho (the Old Father), a life-size mannequin of a man who represents winter. Pai Velho sits atop a decorated cart pulled by oxen followed by another cart with a structure of reeds, straw and branches and decorated with flowers representing spring. On the Sunday before Lent the procession makes its way through the village making stops at certain points where satirical sketches are performed, followed by a traditional dance. On Shrove Tuesday the procession goes through the village again, with more sketches and dancing and the appearance of a number of people known as ‘sweepers’ who have sticks with old rags on the bottom which they dip in water and brush along the villagers’ feet to scare away the evil spirits. That night the Enterro do Pai Velho (the funeral of the Old Father) begins with a mock funeral with a Mass and mourning followed by his cremation. Finally there is a public gathering where the villagers have the opportunity to voice any grudges.

Centro region

In the Aldeias de Xisto (Shale Villages) of Goís, Ponte do Sótão, Comareira, Aigra Nova, Aigra Velha, Pena and Cerdeira in the Serra da Lousã near Coimbra a very traditional Shrovetide celebration called the Corrida do Entrudo (Shrovetide Race) involves dressing up in devilish masks made from cork decorated with horns and teeth from dead animals and old clothes (the older the better) and running from village to village playing practical jokes and chanting humorous verses about the people of the other villages. The men dress up in women’s clothes and the women dress up as men. In addition to the masks and the old clothes, they also carry anything that makes a noise, such as a bell or rattle, which are used to punctuate the verse poems, and they carry oak apples which they will throw at the other villagers. Some revellers also carry traditional instruments such as a concertina, a drum or a scraper, which accompany a communal meal and traditional dancing.

The Torres Vedras carnival (approximately 50km north of Lisbon) which runs from the Friday before Lent to Ash Wednesday is known as ‘o Carnaval mais português de Portugal’ (the most Portuguese carnival in Portugal) and preparations begin 12 months in advance.  Many of the satirical traditions date back to the 1920s, beginning with the crowning of the carnival King and Queen (both played by men) on the Friday who receive the key of the city from the mayor. The carnival continues with a themed parade consisting of matrafonas (men dressed up in a satirical depiction of women), carnival floats decorated with cabeçudos (figures with enormous papier mâché heads which are often caricatures of famous politicians and celebrities), gigantones (giants: huge figures, up to four metres in height, with a papier mâché head on a frame covered in clothes designed to look like a human body and worn by a person who can control the movements so that it looks like the gigantone is walking in the parade), and Zés Pereiras bands (groups of drummers energetically playing snare drums and bass drums in the parade).

The party atmosphere is added to by the throwing of cocotes (small paper parcels which until recently were filled with rubber shavings and sawdust, but now have been replaced by a cleaner version) between the people on floats and the crowd. On Ash Wednesday the Enterro do Entrudo (Funeral of the Carnival Period) is a scene that is acted out on a stage outside the law court where the King is condemned for his misrule during this period. An effigy of the King is exploded with fireworks representing the end of the carnival and a return to order.

In Canas de Senhorim the carnival traditions go back three hundred years when people from the aristocratic neighbourhood of Paço and the neighbourhood of Rossio, where the commoners lived, were given permission to criticise each other during Shrovetide. In the past it began in January when people started playing practical jokes on their neighbours such as a panelada which involves throwing an earthenware pot full of ashes and gallnuts into their houses or a pisão where a stone is attached to the door of a neighbour’s house by a string which when knocked against the house forces the owner to answer the door and find no-one there. Nowadays carnival starts on the Sunday before Lent when the two neighbourhoods parade through the streets and sing loudly at each other as a practice for the main parade on Shrove Tuesday. On the Monday before Lent the farinhada tradition occurs when any young woman leaving the house before midday is in danger of being covered with flour. The Monday afternoon is known as Segunda-feira das Velhas (Monday of the Old [Traditions]) or Dia da Crítica (Day of Criticism) when songs from the past are sung and parades with reference to the past take place and each neighbourhood makes fun of the other’s carnival floats and costumes. On Shrove Tuesday groups from Paço and Rossio parade through the streets of their respective neighbourhoods to a place where the two districts intersect, where they face each other in a despique (a singing competition). The winner is the group that displays the most joviality. The carnival ends on Ash Wednesday with the batatada (potato feast), a meal consisting of cod, potatoes, egg and cabbage, followed by the mock funeral mass for the carnival clown, who is then paraded through the streets where he is ceremoniously burnt.

The Carnival of Cabanas de Viriato, not far from Canas de Senhorim has, as part of its celebrations, a dance dating from the 1860s with the intriguing name of Dança dos Cús (Bum Dance). It is a dance where the people taking part in the carnival procession bump hips in a dance done to a waltz tempo played by a brass band. Even the cabeçudos join in!

Lisbon region

The major carnival in the Lisbon region is in Loures (north of the city of Lisbon). The carnival dates back to 1934 when it was started by a group of entertainers known as cegadas (a group of carnival masqueraders whose name comes from the idea that they beg like blindmen in the street) who performed satirical songs and verse that mocked a local celebrity. This tradition continues today, along with other features which include the coronation of the king and queen, the Baile Trapalhāo (Fool’s Ball, a masked-ball where everyone is encouraged to wear an unusual mask), a themed procession with decorated floats, groups in colourful costumes and the Mastronças do Moulin Rouge (Brutes of the Moulin Rouge: a large group of men who, as the name suggests, inelegantly dress up a women), and ending with the Enterro do Rei do Carnaval (Funeral of the Carnival King, also known as Enterro do Bacalhau (Funeral of the Cod, presumably named after the dried, salted cod which will be a staple food during Lent; a similar mock-funeral of the cod is held in some places on Easter Saturday to celebrate the end of Lent)) where King Ocarário, the carnival king, is tried at a satirical hearing and sentenced to a death that is followed by a fireworks display.

A little touch of Rio glamour and a lot of Portuguese irreverence

Until recently, in many parts of the country, the period before Lent was marked by people throwing items such as flour, eggs and water at each other. In Ovar (south of Porto) they celebrated Carnaval Sujo (Dirty Carnival) up to the 1950s, in which people threw anything they could get their hands on, ranging from coal dust to sawdust, for an exact period of 60 minutes. This tradition was replaced with carnival parades and nowadays many towns have started to include elements of the Rio de Janeiro carnival with colourful floats and samba dancers, but they are usually combined with the Portuguese traditions of political jokes and satire (that became popular after the 1974 revolution), the coronation of the king and queen and the ultimate denunciation and burial of the king, and alongside the Samba schools are groups of passerelles (dancers) and apeados (groups with elaborate costumes and scenery, often irreverent), who take part in the parade and compete to be the best in their category in the carnival. Each carnival has an annual theme, often linked to an aspect of Portuguese culture or history (‘Made in Portugal’, ‘Seas and Oceans’, ‘The Big Shipwreck’, ‘The Great ‘Geringonça’’ (geringonça meaning ‘contraption’ is the dismissive term the right-wing used to describe António Costa’s left-wing coalition government when it formed in 2015)); Nazaré’s carnival (a coastal resort in the Centro region) always has a themed linked to a Nazarene saying written in dialect. There is always a children’s parade, usually on the Friday before Lent, where children of the local schools parade in costumes to a theme. The biggest carnival in the Algarve region is in Loulé (north-west of Faro) where the whole town is closed off for the duration.  Running for over 100 years, it claims to be the oldest carnival in the country (although the Moncarapacho carnival (near Olhão, east of Faro) is actually older, dating from 1899, the Loulé one is said to be the first carnival which included carnival floats in the parade). The carnival procession has a good mixture of Rio-style samba groups and Portuguese-style satire (mocking politicians and celebrities from the world of sport and television), particularly through the aforementioned cabeçudos and gigantones. Other Rio-style carnivals can be seen in Ovar, Sines (on the Alentejo coast), Elvas (near the Alentejo border with Spain), Mealhada and Estarreja (both in the Aveiro district), Nazaré, Sesimbra (south of Lisbon) and Alcobaça (near Nazaré, which claims to have the most Brazilian carnival in Portugal).

With all these celebrations taking place across the country it is surprising that Shrove Tuesday is not one of the official public holidays, while the little-celebrated Republic Day on 5th October is. Instead it is an optional holiday which means that it is at the discretion of the employer (or local authority for public sector workers). However, most people do take the day off, for carnival is part of the Portuguese psyche and as the Portuguese saying goes, ‘A vida são dois dias, o Carnaval são três!’ (Life lasts for two days, carnival lasts for three!).

Dates of Shrove Tuesday up to 2029:
5 March 2019
25 February 2020
16 February 2021
1 March 2022
21 February 2023
13 February 2024
4 March 2025
17 February 2026
9 February 2027
29 February 2028
13 February 2029