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Carnival is a term broadly referring to a specific kind of public event and entertainment.

Known as Karnaval in Afrikaans On occasion also referred to as a Parade, a Mardi Gras, or a Caribbean Carnival (the latter in North America especially).

See also the entries on Festival, Cape Minstrel Carnival and Cape Town Carnival

Origins and history

The event has its roots in a traditional Christian celebration which marks the beginning of Lent, the period of 40 days before Easter during which no meat is eaten. The name is thus believed to be derived from the Latin phrases "carnem levare" (to "lift/remove/set aside the meat"), or (more likely) from "carne vale" ("farewell to flesh"). The Latin term became in turn carnevale in Italian, carnival in English, carnaval in Dutch, karnaval in Afrikaans, karneval in some instances in German, etc.). (Also referred to as Mardi Gras ("Fat Tuesday")[1] in many instances and as Fastelavn[2] in German speaking in Lutheran countries).

One of the earliest and most famous carnivals is the Carnival of Venice (Italian: Carnevale di Venezia), which is said to have started spontaneously in the year 1162, and was recognized as an official event during the Renaissance, becoming increasingly poplar into the seventeenth and centuries. However, in 1797 Francis II, the Holy Roman Emperor and later Emperor of Austria, outlawed the event and strictly forbad the use of masks. Carnival festivities reappeared gradually in the nineteenth century, but only for short periods and above all as part for private feasts, before - after a long absence - the Carnivale returned officially in 1979, now with the support of the government as part of their drive to reinstate and recognize cultural and historical activities.

Other examples of influential carnivals include the New Orleans Mardi Gras and the Rio de Janeiro Carnival.

The term Carnival

Although the word (in its various forms) is most often associated with Christian festivities, notably Lent, in some cases carnival is used more broadly to refer to other kinds street processionals, parades and celebratory events, unrelated to religious celebrations or rituals (e.g. student parades or carnivals at various tertiary institutions). Also, in a vaguely related sense, the word is used in a number of other senses, e.g. to indicate a flamboyant or riotous radiancy or variety (a "carnival of colours", a "carnival atmosphere"), in the sense of a fun fair (a "travelling carnival") or the name of an entertainment - or even shopping - centre (such as "Carnival City" in Gauteng).

The nature and form of Carnival

Carnival as a theatrical event

Carnival-like or carnival-style

As pointed out above, sometimes events (a festival, an exhibition, an agricultural show, a fair, a bazaar, a social dance, a public celebration of cultural or sporting events, etc) are termed carnivals, simply because they display features associated with carnivals proper, for example street parades, exhuberant costuming, music and dance, face-painting , a celebratory atmosphere, and so on. In these, and even other cases of events of a flamboyant and eentretaining nature, one may find expressions such as carnival-like or carnival-style being used to describe the event in question.

Bakhtin and the idea of the carnivalesque

A term created by Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975)[3] in works such as Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929) and Rabelais and His World (1965), where he points out that in the carnivals of popular culture, social hierarchies of everyday life are profaned and overturned: fools become wise, kings become beggars, while opposites are mingled (for example fact and fantasy, heaven and hell). Most importantly, there are no hierarchical positions during carnival, ideologies that routinely inhabit people's lives, simply do not exist for the duration of the carnival.

This notion of an inverted or even egalitarian order, is immensely important in any discussion of something like the Mardi Gras in New Orleans (e.g. August Staub, 1992) and the Coon Carnival in 19th and 20th century Cape Town (see Denis-Constant Martin, 1999, for example).

Student carnivals

A special form of such activity is the annual festival or parade staged for charity by students at tertiary institutions in many countries. More commonly known as a Rag in English (referring to a programme of stunts, parades, and other entertainments organized by students to raise money for charity during "rag week", deriving from the notion of a "rag" as a boisterous prank or practical joke)[4], and a Jool in Afrikaans ("Jool" is related to the word "jolyt", derived from the Dutch word "jool", first found in the meaning of "a festival" or "jollification" in 1852.)[5]

However, some of these events have been dubbed a carnival or a karnaval (in Afrikaans) and immaterial of the term used, in form these events all display strong carnivalesque qualities, or at the very least are carnival-like in form. There are a few such instances in South Africa (see the listing below).

Travelling and permanent carnivals, fun fairs, etc.

Also known as a travelling funfair (or simply a funfair), a traveling carnival (or simply a carnival), usually refers to an amusement show consisting of fun rides, food stalls, goods merchants, games of chance and skill, thrill acts and animal acts - in many ways deriving from the same impetus as the 19th century circus. Like them, these travelling entertainments are not set up at a permanent location, like an amusement park, but move from place to place, to set up in open fields (or designated "fairgrounds") near or in town for a while, before moving on to a new location.

Unlike traditional carnival celebrations, these traveling carnivals or fairs are not normally tied to a specific religious event or celebration, clearly deriving from the ubiquitous European heritage of periodic commercial market fairs held in towns and cities, and at least dating back to the middle ages. These often had all kinds of performers and entertainers (singers, storytellers, bear-baiters, fire-eaters, etc.) travelling along and putting on performances at the events.

During the 19th century this evolved further - notably also in rural North America - to include items like circus, vaudeville , burlesque and magic lantern acts or shows. It is believed that it is from this background, specifically inspired by the wonders and successes of events like The Great Exhibition held in London's Crystal Palace (1851)[6] and subsequent "World's Fairs", in particular the Chicago World's Fair of 1893[7], that the modern traveling carnival, relying more heavily on technology based activities (with mechanical rides, displays of technological marvels, etc), found its current shape and would evolve and spread through North America, Britain, Europa and ultimately the world at large.

A partial list of carnivals and carnival-like events in South Africa

Carnival is often seen in the same category of entertainment as the playland or funfair and the circus, while there have also been numerous festive events in South Africa using the name "carnival" as part of their titles. While there are a few classic carnivals in the list (the Coon Carnival of course being the prime example), in strict terms not all those listed are true carnival-style events. Many employ the word in its broadest sense now, with no specific reference to form or function, but merely to signpost some kind of entertainment or celebratory element in the particular event. The term is thus often used interchangeably with the terms parade, "festival", celebration, fête, bazaar, etc., because the events referred to include games, competitions, concerts, or simply popular entertainment. This broad usage has become increasingly popular in the late 20th century, and escalated even more in the early 21st century.

For more on the individual events listed here, click on the appropriate name to go to the entry in question.

Buffalo City Summer Carnival (Eastern Cape)

Cape Minstrel Carnival (annually on 2 January, Cape Town) - also known as the Cape Carnival, Cape Town Minstrel Parade, the Kaapse Klopse or (historically in English) the Coon Carnival or Cape Coon Carnival.

Cape Town Carnival (Annually in March, Cape Town, since 2012)

Cascades Carnival (Pietermaritzburg, 2018)

The Color Run (Annually in various cities)

Deuriemikke Karnaval (Annually in August/September, Pretoria)

Donkey Carnival (Annually at Albany Field, Grahamstown in December).

Durban Cultural Carnival (Annually in October, Durban)

East Rand Spring Festival (Annually in September, since 2017)

First Margate Scouts Carnival (Margate, South Coast of Natal)

Groot Marico Safari Karnaval

Joburg Carnival (Annually 31 December-1 January, Johannesburg) See Johannesburg Carnival

Johannesburg Carnival (Annually 31 December-1 January, Johannesburg)

Lekkerland Carnival (Annually in March, Dullstroom)

Lof en Dank Karnaval (Bloemfontein, 2019)

Mossel Bay Carnival (Annually in September, Mossel Bay)

eMzantsi Carnival (annually in December, Fish Hoek)

NG Kerk Hospitaalpark Karnaval (Bloemfontein, September 2018).

Pink Loerie Mardi Gras and Arts Festival (annually during May, in Knysna)

PUK Karnaval (Potchefstroom University, 1967-1987)

REDD'S Street Carnival. (Port Elizabeth)

Rhodes Carnival (Rhodes University, 2010)

Scottburgh Easter Carnival (Scottburgh Beach, March/April)

Siyagiya Durban International Music and Cultural Carnival (December in Durban - 2012 and 2013)

South Coast Carnival (St Michael’s on Sea)

Spring Carnaval/Lente Karnaval (Roodepoort)

Spring Family Day Carnival, (Polekwane, 2016 and 2017)

Uitenhage Street Carnival (Annually in November, Uitenhage)

US Karnaval (Stellenbosch)

Warm-Winter Karnaval (South Coast , Natal)

"Carnival" and "Karnaval" as titles for plays, songs, venues, etc.

The terms carnival and karnaval appear as titles for quite a few plays, cabarets and performance pieces, South African examples include such productions as Karnaval by Pieter-Dirk Uys (1975); Carnival à la District Six by David Bestman and Taliep Petersen (1980); Carnival Sideshow and Other Magical Things by Brendon Peel and Li Lau (2018).

Poems and collections of poems using Karnaval or Carnival include the poems Die Karnaval by I.D. du Plessis (19**), Die karnaval van vreugde by Gert Strydom (2010)[8] and a collection of Afrikaans poetry called Karnaval en Lent by T.T. Cloete (2014).

The lyrics of an Afrikaans song called "Karnaval In Bloemfontein"[9] (written by Gert van Tonder, sung by Afrikaans singer and film actress Carike Kreuzenkamp, 1987) actually describes a festive parade and masquerade in the city, possibly the annual university Jool in the streets of the city.

On the East Rand in Gauteng, there is a venue called Carnival City, a casino, hotel and entertainment complex run by Sun International. The complex contains three performance venues, namely Big Top Arena, Mardi Gras Theatre and Bru’s Bar.


Denis-Constant Martin. 1999. Coon Carnival. New Year in Cape Town, Past and Present. Cape Town: David Phillip Publishers.

August Staub[10]] (1992) ‘The social uses of festival: Transformation and disfiguration’ South African Theatre Journal (SATJ), Volume 6:1, pp. 4-24.

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