Carnival of Martinique

Women smiling during a carnival paradeCarnival is the biggest popular event in Martinique. Since the period of slavery, it was an important moment of popular cohesion on the island which is a precursor in the celebration of Carnival in America. Indeed, the very first carnival celebrated throughout the American continent was in Martinique. If the form was totally different, this is the first time that Carnival has been referred to as a party where we dress up and celebrate in a popular way.

As at that time the strongest of the spectacle remains Shrove Tuesday, a day when the spectacle is at its peak in terms of atmosphere and popularity.

Carnival, two months of festivities?

We cannot repeat it enough and if you have read our other files on the celebrations of other holidays in Martinique you will know that Martinique is an island where the festivals are not limited to mere public holidays. So, just as Christmas is not limited to December 25, Carnival is not just about the simple Shrove days. As soon as New Year's Day is celebrated, carnival riders, walking groups and other carnival animators and mood makers are hard at work. Parades are organized all over the island and queen elections take place. Rehearsals take place and it is not uncommon to hear drum sounds throughout the day.

Obviously the highlight of the show remains the Shrove days. These days refer to the Catholic history of Martinique. Indeed, the bold days correspond to the days of the Gregorian Catholic calendar which precede the fast of Lent. They are so called because it was the last days when Christians could eat fat (meat) before the Lenten fast. To locate them in the year, all you have to do is take the feast of Easter as a reference and perform the following calculation: the 40 days preceding the feast of Easter are devoted to the Lent fast which begins on Thursday in Martinique, the days before Lent are those of the Shrove Days when carnival is celebrated. Thus the Martinique carnival generally takes place in February or early March.

In the rest of the Caribbean and in particular the former British colonies, the days reserved for Carnival are not the same. Great Britain being a Protestant country did not celebrate Lent. Also, when the carnival contagion spread to the Caribbean, it found different references to be celebrated. We can cite the island of Barbados where its very famous carnival in the world and popularized by the singer Rihanna takes place in early August, at the end of the harvest period of sugar cane during its colonial period, hence its name of "Crop over" (end of harvests).

Mini-queen of the Martinique carnivalBack to Martinique, from the month of January, queens, queen-mothers and mini-queens are elected to parade at the head of the floats. Each municipality elects its three representatives according to several criteria which are the originality of the costume, its popularity among the public attending the show and the charisma of the candidates. Once elected, they will be honored during all the parades organized in the town before the Shrove Days and during the carnival parades.

Vaval of Martinique CarnivalOn the other side, local associations are preparing the Vaval, king of the carnival, a sort of giant puppet presented at the head of the procession during the carnival. It is the work of associations which work with enthusiasm and on a voluntary basis several months before the deadline to perpetuate this tradition.

Until Shrove Sunday, the Vaval puppet is unknown to the general public. His identity is the subject of all speculation and often constitutes the biggest pre-Carnival suspense. He often refers to a political or media theme that touched the island.

Thus in 2013, Vaval represented homosexuals going to marry following the law authorizing marriage between two people of the same sex, in 2014 it was a mosquito during a period when Martinique was facing the chikungunya virus and in 2015 a Sargassum, algae polluting the Atlantic coast of the island.

Historical overview

An essential element of Martinican heritage, carnival was born in the heart of slave society. At the time, Europeans living on the island or / and European descendants born on the island, white Creoles, wanted to be able to continue to organize costume balls as they did in Europe. The Church grants them the Tuesday before Lent as the last day when they could eat fat. During this day called Mardi Gras, they feasted on meat and disguised themselves during ceremonies reserved only for their community. These balls were organized in the Grand'Case and did not leave the closed and closed frame of the house.

The slaves who liked to ape the Europeans to make fun or reproduce their codes lend themselves to the game by parading in the Streets Cases-Nègres with disguises made with all kinds of objects they had recovered. From then on, the carnival entered the codes of the island. It is more the version of the latter which was taken up by future generations with no longer parades in the streets of the little houses of the slaves but in the streets of the various municipalities of the island.

Carnival has evolved considerably. Gone is its gastronomic dimension where no specific dish is associated with it, the carnival is nothing more than a huge popular parade where the people let off steam for several days, have fun without moderation in costumes sometimes competing with genius. and inventiveness. The huge parade of raging participants is called the vidé.

Today's Carnival

Today, each bold day corresponds to specific colors, each referring to a historical fact. So Sunday is the only free day where all the colors are out. It is also the day chosen to present the Vaval puppet, which will be in the spotlight throughout the period.

Bradjack, old car of the Martinique carnivalIt is also a challenge for the different groups on foot who animate the processions using instruments such as the drum, ti-bwa, chacha (maracas) among others. Bewitching dances bring to the carnival its festive side and popular cohesion. But what would carnival be without its floats or even its bradjacks, old cars decorated for the occasion that are suffering under the weight of ten young people (photo opposite).

Monday is the burlesque wedding that is in the spotlight with an exchange of roles in the couple. The man wears a wedding dress while the woman wears a man's costume. Generally, it is couples already formed in civilian life who make this exchange of procedures for the tradition of Fat Monday. If the other days, most of the carnivals flock to Fort-de-France, on Monday is the carnival organized by a municipality in the south (choice of the municipality made several months in advance), which “takes the biggest part of the cake.

Martinique Carnival South ParadeIndeed, it is the Grande Parade du Sud, which brings together all the municipalities in the south of the island, which acts as a major popular gathering place. It made it possible to increase the attraction of the south of the island a little and to decentralize this event outside the capital city for a day.

Martinique Carnival Mardi Gras ParadeMardi Gras is red and black. The red devils are out to scare the youngest in the parade.

Martinique Carnival Shrove Wednesday ParadeAsh Wednesday is the cremation of King "Vaval". For this purpose it is the colors of local mourning which are worn namely black and white. The King’s weeping widows sometimes even bear fake tears to mourn the one who has been honored for four days.

At the end of the day, the one who was until now the king, Vaval is then cremated in front of the large crowd coming to the accesses of the Malecon, the famous bay of Fort-de-France. After ironic funeral notices thanking all the participants, volunteers and others who will have allowed the party to have been up to it, a ruthless arsonist reduced to bits the one who was until now the hero.

During all these days, the festivities continue in costumed evenings, frenzied in nightclubs and discos until the end of the night.

The following Thursday is the first day of Lent and it is certainly the calmest day on the island. No more instrument sounds, it's dead calm on the island. For 40 days, nightclubs and other concert halls are closed and take the opportunity to do annual renovations.

Unlike Guadeloupe, Martinique does not celebrate Mi-Carême (day in the middle of the Lent period when people organize a parade to break with the deprivations of Lent).

It will be necessary to wait until Easter for the festive Martinique to resume its colorful and musical rhythm.