Carnival celebration

Pre-Lenten Carnival in Martinique shares many similarities to better known celebrations in Trinidad and Rio, but in Martinique there’s one big difference: length.  Each year as revelers in other Carnival hot spots wind down with the close of Shrove Tuesday, the party in Martinique keeps going, reaching its climax on one of the most solemn days on the Christian calendar, Ash Wednesday.  The fitting theme for Martinique’s “bonus” days of revelry – “Rejoice Today, Repent Tomorrow.”

For those who can’t get enough carnival, Martinique is the ideal destination. 
Unlike other Carnival hot spots, the party in Martinique extends into Ash Wednesday… and beyond!

Naturally, the action heats up on “Fat Sunday”.  Known in Martinique as Dimanche Gras, the official first day of Carnival features daytime parades with a wide range of costumed characters performing throughout the streets of Martinique’s cities and towns.  Among the more popular and notorious characters are the Nègres-Gros-Sirops; mischievous revelers covered in coal tar and sugarcane syrup from head-to-toe that break through the crowds of spectators playfully frightening children.  Another outrageous character, Marianne La Po Fig appears as the music and dancing extends deep into the night wearing, as her name implies, nothing but dry banana leaves (“fig” is the Creole word for banana).  Throughout the day, marchers parade around with spectacularly dressed puppets called Bwa Bwa creating a veritable feast for the eyes.

Lundi Gras, or “Fat Monday” in Martinique brings “Mock Weddings,” burlesque parodies played out in the city streets with men dressed as pregnant brides or floozies, and women serving as reluctant bridegrooms.  Ceremonies are held well into the night, culminating in elaborate masquerade balls where drag is the preferred costume de nuit.

Mardi Gras (Tuesday), “Red Devils Day,” is all about the kids, with glorious processions featuring hundreds of children dressed in brilliant red costumes, carrying homemade tridents and wearing fright masks made of animal skins and horns.  Red cloth jumpsuits are adorned with hundreds of glittering mirrors and small bells that jingle as the kids dance all the way to sundown.  The elders carry on the party from there until the wee hours.

As Carnival revelers in other parts of the world nurse hangovers with the arrival of Ash Wednesday, the party in Martinique kicks into high gear.  The bonus “Day of the She-Devils” (La Fête des Diablesses) marks the climax of the celebration with more than 30,000 “mourners” gathering to mark the end of Carnival and the symbolic death of King Carnival, known as Vaval.  The local media reports death notices in honor of Vaval, while festivities take place as his funeral pyre is built.  Only two colors are worn – black and white.  “She-Devils,” their faces smeared with pale ash or white flour, wear embroidered waist petticoats and blouses, a black skirt and headscarf made with a damask white table napkin.  Mismatched black and white socks, shoes and gloves complete the traditional ensemble.

As dusk falls, Vaval’s funeral flames light up the sky.  The party, an arousing explosion of pulsating rhythms, exotic dance, mirth and rum, peaks as Vaval is consigned to the fire.  Only when the flames die down does a calm settle over the masses.  With the burial of Vaval, the crowds chant, “Vaval, pa kité nou,” which translates to “Carnival, don’t leave us.

Officially, Martinique’s Carnival ends at the close of Ash Wednesday.  However, in the island’s inimitable celebratory spirit, Carnival is revived three weeks later with a second bonus day of revelry known as Mi-Carême, or mid-Lent.  Vaval remains buried, but cities and towns across Martinique spring to life again with colorful costumes, rum and parades combining again to engender non-stop revelry amid a Carnival-like atmosphere – a mini-Mardi Gras in the land where the party never stops.

To help visitors and residents enjoy Martinique Carnival safely, the capital city of Fort-de-France is closed to vehicle traffic during the celebrations.  Shuttle buses are provided from convenient locations in the surrounding suburbs.