Rio de Janeiro carnival history

Written by kristinblack
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Rio de Janeiro carnival history
Carnival's world-renowned festivities attract huge crowds. (Getty Thinkstock)

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, hosts one of the annual worldwide pre-Lent celebrations. Rio de Janeiro Carnival's world-renowned festivities enchant the droves of participants and spectators arriving each year. Extravagant parades, balls and street parties allow individuals to say "farewell to the flesh" (the Latin origin of the word "carnival") and enjoy a memorable event.


The roots of the Rio de Janeiro Carnival date back over 200 years. During the four days leading up to Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, revellers let loose to prepare for the 40 days of abstinence ahead. Carnival was introduced in Rio de Janeiro by the Portuguese around 1850. Original carnival events were uncivilized and not sanctioned by the Brazilian government. Participants played in the streets, throwing water, mud and food at each other.


Samba became an integral part of the Rio de Janeiro Carnival in the early 1900s. True to its root--"semba" (meaning "invitation to dance")--samba beats encourage dancing. Samba evolved from street music and African slave songs. Prior to the 1900s, carnival music included polkas, waltzes and mazurkas.


The festivities are initiated with the crowning and presentation of the city's key to King Momo. King Momo represents the Greek god of mockery, sent to Rio from Mount Olympus. Characterised by a large man, King Momo symbolises Fat Tuesday, the fourth and final day of the celebration. A spirited Queen of Carnival is selected as the result of a contest.

Intended as a time of celebration for everyone, the Rio de Janeiro Carnival is a time when social and class expectations are disregarded. Traditionally, rich dressed as poor and poor as rich; men dressed as women; and slaves were free. These traditions carry on in the present as costumes and cross-dressing are common. The Rio de Janeiro Carnival continues to represent a time of freedom, with festivities available for all walks of life to enjoy.


Organised and competitive parades became part of the Rio de Janeiro Carnival in the late 1800s. Street parties developed into an engaging event highlighting dedicated preparation by Rio de Janeiro's samba schools. Each school presents a unique theme and performs to a tune created especially for the annual Samba Parade. Samba schools may consist of 3,000 to 5,000 members and embody the local communities.

Although the Samba Parade is the main attraction, four other parades entertain spectators throughout the carnival. The four additional formal parades are the Champions Parade, Samba Schools Access Group A, Samba Schools Access Group B and Children's Samba Schools.

Other Festivities

The Rio de Janeiro Carnival features grand balls and street parties. Balls vary in level of prestige. Costumes are required for attendance at some balls. The illustrious Magic Ball at Copacabana Palace Hotel is the Samba Parade of carnival balls. Organised and impromptu street parties carry on throughout the carnival days and nights. Street parties are true to the spirit of the event by affording everyone the opportunity to celebrate regardless of ability to purchase tickets to the organised events.

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