Carnival throughout Portugal

  March 5 – 8, 2011 in Portugal

March is the season for Portugal’s Carnaval, a four-day celebration held the week before the season of Lent. Carnaval brings to mind the colorful and festive parades in Rio, but those traditions have roots in Portugal, the country that settled Brazil.

Parades and pageants have been part of Carnaval celebrations throughout Portugal for centuries. During Carnaval, the streets are filled with parade floats, lively music, dances, colorful costumes and revelers wearing outlandish masks. Carnaval went from Portugal to Brazil but now Portugal has taken back aspects of the Brazilian-style Carnaval celebrations adding glitz and glamour to the traditional parades and events.

Carnaval, also called “Entrudo”, formally designates the period of time between Epiphany and Lent. The bulk of the festivities, however, are reserved for the three “fat days” leading up to Ash Wednesday. Much like New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, the festival was the preliminary feast before the Christians’ time of fasting and religious reflection.

Pagan Roots

Although Carnaval is a Christian tradition, the festival has pagan roots. The symbols that has endured since that time are the large headed and masked figures seen in parades throughout the country. These ancient festivals marked the period of transition between the end of winter and the beginning of spring. This ritual of fertility was in preparation for the new agricultural season in hopes of bringing abundant crops.

During the Roman era, Portugal celebrated Saturnalia, named for the god Saturn who was considered one of the supreme rulers of the universe and protector of farmers. He was said to have ruled the world until he was removed from his throne by his son, Zeus. He fled to Italy taking with him the time of perfect happiness and peace known as the Golden Age. By celebrating in his honor during the winter months, it was believed possible to recover the golden age. The festivals also marked a period of peace and equality, when people of all classes mingled together. This principle of freedom is also a defining aspect of Carnaval today, when the established order is shaken up before a return to the traditional social balance.


Another ancient tradition that has remnants in today’s Carnaval is the focus on reconciliation with the dead and their spirits. The figure of death was personified with white costumes and masks and a doll and other symbols of evil spirits were burnt in an act of purification. In many places in Portugal, the Carnaval festivities still end with the burial of the “Entrudo,” a final act of freedom and breaking of the rules prior to a return to order.

The symbolic use of figures and dolls is also seen in the tradition of the “Compadres and Comadres” or the godfathers and godmothers. On the two Thursdays before Lent, young men and women band together in a kind of battle of the sexes, both celebrating and poking fun of their counterparts by dressing in drag and crafting straw dolls dressed in old clothing to mock the opposite sex. Each Thursday is reserved for either the “godmothers” or the “godfathers” when domestic tasks are done for the other sex. In certain regions, the Comadres offer a meal to the young men on the day of the Compadres to express solidarity between the sexes and reinforce traditional roles.

The battle of the sexes continues into Carnaval Tuesday when the straw dolls are burnt in public after reading a will that highlights the imperfections of the opposite sex. This focus on the rolls of men and women is also a wink to the tradition of abstinence during Lent.

Regional Variations

Carnaval is celebrated throughout Portugal, but each region puts its own unique take on the festival.

In Lazarim, a municipality of Lamego, celebrations follow the pagan tradition of the Roman Saturnalias. This rustic town celebrates Carnaval by burning colorful effigies and dressing in carefully crafted, home-made costumes. The region is celebrated for its wood craftsmanship and is most for the locals’ heavy, hand-made wooden masks worn during Carnaval. The masks of Lazarim are effigies of both men and women, but both roles are performed by men. They are distinguished by their clothes, which ridiculously characterize different attributes of both men and women.

The Lazarim Carnaval cycle encompasses two periods, the first starting on the fifth Sunday before Fat Sunday. Masked figures and people wearing large sculpted heads walk through the town. The locals also feast on a wide variety of meats, above all pork. The second cycle, held on Sundays preceding Ash Wednesday, incorporates the tradition of the Compadres and Comadres, with men and women displaying light-hearted authority over the other.

Over the course of the five weeks, men prepare large masked heads and women raise funds to pay for the mannequins that will be sacrificed in a public bonfire. This is one of the key events and is a Carnaval tradition unique to Portugal. During the bonfire, a girl reads the Compadre’s will and a boy reads the Comadre’s will. The executors of the will are named, a donkey is symbolically distributed to both female and male “heirs,” and then the final reckoning in which the Entrudo, or Carnaval doll, is burned.

In Estarreja in the Central region of Portugal, the town’s first references to Carnaval are noted in the 14th Century, with “Flower Battles,” or richly decorated floats which paraded through Estarreja’s streets. In the beginning of the twentieth century these festivities ended with the death of its main promoters only to reappear again in the sixties to become one of the many important Carnaval festivals in Portugal.

In the Northern region of Podence children appear from Sunday to Tuesday with tin masks and colorful multilayered costumes made from red, green and yellow wool. And in the Central Portugal towns of Nelas and Canas de Senhorim, Carnaval is one of the most important tourist events in the region, attracting thousands of visitors yearly. Nelas and Canas de Senhorim are host to the four festive parades that promise visitors colorful and creative costumes: The Bairro da Igreja and the Cimo do Povo in Nelas and the do Paço and the do Rossio in Canas de Senhorim.

One of the most famous Carnaval events in Portugal is in the town Ovar near Porto. Organized in 1952 it is the largest festivity of the region drawing thousands of visitors. It is well known for its creative designs, which they display in the Carnaval Parade. Participants and their families work year-round to prepare their elaborate and humorous costumes, masks, decorations and floats. Its Carnaval parade features troupes with themed costumes and music, ranging from the traditional to modern pop culture.

In Lisbon, Portugal’s largest city, Carnaval is a more cosmopolitan affair. Parades, dances and festivities throughout the week feature famous stars from Portugal and Brazil. The Loures Carnaval is a highlight of Lisbon’s festivities which celebrates the country’s folk traditions, including the “enterro do bacalhau” or burial of the cod, which symbolizes the end of Carnaval and the festivities.

North of Lisbon is the famous Torres Vedras Carnaval, described as the “most Portuguese in Portugal.” Those looking for a less touristy Carnaval experience should visit this town where the locals are the stars. The celebration highlight is a parade of creatively decorated streetcars satirizing society and politics.

Other Central Portugal towns, such as Fatima and Leiria, offer colorful, family-friendly takes on Carnaval. In these towns everyone dresses up as if it were Halloween. Children and adults wear masks and enjoy the towns’ enthusiastic parades.

In the Algarve region along the southern coast of Portugal, several of the posh resorts towns offer their own traditional takes on the Carnaval parades. Besides the themed floats and cars, the Carnaval festivities include “samba” groups, bands, dances and plenty of music and liveliness. In the city of Loulé, the Carnaval parade annually attracts thousands of national and foreign tourists to the region.February is the season for Portugal’s Carnaval, a four-day celebration held the week before the season of Lent. Carnaval brings to mind the colorful and festive parades in Rio, but those traditions have roots in Portugal, the country that settled Brazil.

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